MP speaks as part of Emergency Scenario Debate

SOUTH Basildon and East Thurrock MP, Stephen Metcalfe spoke as a member of the Scientific Advice (Emergencies) committee at the House of Commons this week.

Mr Metcalfe said:

“It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.

Just after midnight, on Sunday 21 March 2010, the BBC website reported:

“An Icelandic volcano, dormant for 200 years, has erupted, ripping a 1km-long fissure in a field of ice…sending lava a hundred metres high.

Icelandic airspace has been closed, flights diverted and roads closed… 500 people were moved from the area”.

Three weeks later, the same BBC website reported:

“All flights in and out of the UK and several other European countries have been suspended as ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland moves south…4,000 flights are being cancelled with airspace closed in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark”,as well as in the UK. It noted that the EUROCONTROL group had said that the problem could easily persist for at least the following two days.

Over the next weeks, the problems persisted, and there was great debate about whether it was safe to fly. Could ash bring down planes? What sort of ash was it? People were stranded all over Europe and the rest of the world. They had no way of getting home. Millions of pounds were spent on alternative hotel accommodation and on travel. There was absolute travel chaos around the world.

On 23 April 2009, the first cases of the H1N1 virus—the swine flu virus—were confirmed in Mexico and theUS. Four days later, the first cases appeared in the UK, in a couple in Scotland. The Government announced that the stockpile of antivirals would be increased from 33.5 million to 50 million doses.

On 1 May, the first case of human-to-human transmission in the UK was confirmed. On 15 May, agreements were made to secure another 90 million doses of pre-pandemic vaccine. On 16 July, as we have heard, the chief medical officer announced that 65,000 people could die from the swine flu virus, in the worst- case scenario. On 10 September, the four UK Health Departments released critical care strategies to cope with the expected increase in demand during the second wave of the pandemic, and on 21 October vaccination programmes began with front-line health care workers and their patients in at-risk categories. Plans were laid to keep the supply chain operating and the shops were stocked. Key workers were identified; there was the potential for chaos.

On Wednesday 14 November 2012, at 6.15 pm, satellite channels start to flicker and go offline. Intermittent power cuts affect large chunks of the south-east of England. Planes are told to adopt holding positions as radar and global positioning systems start to malfunction. Mobile phones and computers develop faults and cease to work. The internet goes down and trains stop running. A state of national emergency is called and an announcement is made that the UK is experiencing a coronal mass ejection—space weather—although no one is sure who is listening.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon in 2015, cash points cease to work. The problem is believed to be local, but reports are surfacing that the complete ATM system could be affected. Technicians are working on it. There are suggestions in the media that it could be a complex cyber-attack on infrastructure. More systems fail and the banking system seizes up. Shops cannot take payments. Suppliers go unpaid. Wages and benefits do not get paid. Benefits are not paid. There is chaos as the whole economy seizes up.

Those scenarios sound like the seriously dodgy synopsis of some bad B-movies, and I have been over-dramatic and used a dollop of artistic licence, but they highlight some of the risks that we and the Government face. As we have heard, it is the way we identify and plan for those risks that will determine how well we cope with them.

I am often asked by people what the relevance of the Select Committee on Science and Technology is to the people of South Basildon and East Thurrock. I always refer them to our investigation into how the Government use scientific advice and evidence in emergencies. I explain how seriously the Committee and the Government take the need to know how we might keep the lights on, or the shelves at Tesco stocked, in an emergency, and that provides a great example of how something that seems not to affect people’s day-to-day lives can affect them seriously.

I do not want to frighten anyone. My introduction may have been a little alarmist and I do not want anyone to have nightmares, but the volcanic eruption in Iceland caused chaos. It cost the economy many millions of pounds and inconvenienced many people, but there was more than inconvenience. A lot of business was not done, and many people missed important events. As we heard, part of the problem was that on that occasion the Government were playing catch-up—certainly for the first part of the crisis—as the eruption had not been identified as a potential risk. It was on an earlier version on the national risk assessment, but, for whatever reason, it had been taken out.

I accept that the H1N1 swine flu outbreak never became a pandemic, but it might have done. It is not inconceivable that in the foreseeable future we shall have a pandemic, in which large numbers of people fall sick very quickly, jeopardising our ability to keep our vital private and public services operating. The question is how we will cope with that, and what we can put in place to mitigate the effects.

In addition to considering two historic events, the Committee looked at two potential risks of the future—space weather and cyber-attack, both of which sound like fantastic straplines for “Doctor Who” or “Torchwood”, but have the potential to pose a real threat. Perhaps they are not quite as dramatic as I have stated, but we did, in 1859, experience a bout of severe space weather, known as the Carrington event. Its impact was recorded as serious at the time. As the Committee Chairman said, we are now totally dependent on electricity—on electrical devices of all sorts: satellites, GPS, mobile phones and computers. Because events such as the Carrington event do not happen often, it is difficult fully to anticipate the effects.

We have all experienced attack by computer viruses and know how devastating they can be when they affect just our personal computer. At best it is inconvenient, but at worst the whole machine can be fried. If we imagine that happening on an industrial scale, or a widespread attack on PCs to harvest personal data, we can see that there could be a real problem.

Those are just some of the challenges that the Government need to prepare for, and to prepare strategies to mitigate, while keeping within the bounds of reality. That is a key issue: the key is identifying the risk in the first place. Who do the Government listen to and talk to? What are the risks and financial implications?

To find the answers we must first identify the risk. The Committee was reassured by the fact that there is a national risk assessment. That project is charged with identifying threats and undertakes the important role of horizon-scanning. However, I was surprised, as I think we all were, to hear from the chief scientific adviser that he does not have a formal role in approving what goes on to the national risk assessment. That highlights the need for the Government to make better use of scientific advice and evidence—and not only during emergencies, but prior to them—and to use the skills available to them now, to develop the NRA further and ensure that robust contingency plans for all events are in place.

The Committee considered that the Government reach for scientific advice after emergencies, but do not integrate it well enough beforehand. I should like to hear from the Government that their chief scientific adviser will now have a more formal role in the national risk assessment, and sign off on the NRA only if he is satisfied with the scientific input.

Another issue, which the Committee Chairman outlined and my Committee colleague, my hon. Friend Gavin Barwell, discussed, is how we should communicate risk to the public, and what risks the Government should prepare for. Those are not necessarily the same thing. We heard a lot about the reasonable worst-case scenario. I understand that that is an attempt to identify and prepare for a serious event, without going into flights of fancy, even if that scenario is very unlikely.

The Committee believes that the Government should also prepare for the most likely scenario—one that can easily be communicated to the public, and entailing a risk that they can understand and take simple precautions against. An example might be better information about always using the latest virus protection software on home computers, or password protecting wireless networks. However, that does not negate the need to prepare at Government level for more serious, if unlikely, events: to work with power companies to explore ways to minimise the impact of space weather; to ensure that the banking system understands potential threats; or to work with business to ensure that the supply chain would continue to function in a flu epidemic.

It would be useful to hear from the Minister, in the light of what I and other hon. Members have said, how he sees the role of the reasonable worst-case scenario, and how the Blackett review that is now under way is progressing. When may we hear some of its results?

It struck me that in several cases the Government were, if not complacent about potential risks, coming at them perhaps a little late. The establishment by the Government of the Office of Cyber Security andInformation Assurance, which we have heard about, and on which there have been questions, is very welcome—but it is a new office, established to assess a risk that has existed for many years. I am therefore interested to hear how it is progressing and what its findings are, as well as what other new offices may need to be created following a vigorous horizon-scanning exercise. Horizon scanning seeks out as yet unknown and unidentified threats, so that we can at least start to think about their impact, and how to deal with them. It would be useful to hear confirmation from the Government that they want to identify those threats, and that they want fully to explore all the risks, regardless of whether they are too expensive to deal with or too complex to plan for. Risk should be dismissed from the national risk assessment on the basis of scientific advice and evidence.

Not all risks are confined to individual nations. Some present a global threat, and it is important to work across borders with other countries. We must continue to participate in and play an active role in collaborative programmes, such as the European Space Agency’s space situational awareness programme, so that we are better prepared for a space weather emergency. Again, will the Minister confirm our commitment, not only to that programme, but to the wider concept, and tell us whether other collaborations are taking place?

In conclusion, it is vital that we do not overstate the risks. We must not frighten people, or provide headlines for the red-tops, but we must not underestimate them. We must assure the public that the Government have a sound and robust process in place that assesses any threat using proper scientific evidence and advice and that the Government have put in place contingency plans to deal with risks based on the advice of experts. If that is done calmly, although we will always live in an unpredictable and changing world, we can be sure that whatever is thrown at us the Government will be able to help us collectively see our way through any challenge, and that we will emerge, if not unscathed, better than we might otherwise have done.

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