Reading Time: 6 minutes
It’s with great excitement (and a little surprise) that Sky’s COBRA returned to screens this week. By popular demand, my episode-by-episode reviews have also returned, bringing this emergency manager’s take on how the profession is depicted and some thoughts on how the response to an emergency might vary in real life.
The series centres around COBRA, the name given to the UK Government’s crisis response machinery, and its response to a national emergency.
Season One episode reviews are over here if you want to start with those.
How Sky described the episode: New and Exclusive. The high stakes Sky Original returns as COBRA faces volatility in Kent. An unseen enemy strikes from the shadows.
The episode starts with a ‘previously on COBRA’ montage. It’s not important what the crisis was in S1, this is all about setting up the context – they are making it clear that the backstory is going to be relevant in S2. Who likes who, what the power dynamics of the Cabinet are, who’s got what skeletons to be dramatically released. I’m hooked!
We join Fraser, the Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, or CCS, (IRL this is a post currently filled by Roger Hargreaves, who recently spoke at The Emergency Planning Society Conference) binoculars in hand asking for a sitrep (translation: Situation Report) from his colleague on a small boat.
A town is being ordered to evacuate by a disembodied voice, so let us explore evacuation a bit further…
The military are on hand, which tells us that this is something that has been ongoing for a little while because Military Aid to Civil Authorities (or MACA) requires Ministerial authorisation as well as a ‘time to move’ period for the military resources.
Evacuation is all about moving people from a place of relative danger to a place of relative safety. It’s fairly simple in high-level terms, but a range of complex issues and considerations means that it’s not perhaps as simple as it might seem. It’s not always required, and sometimes staying put might be the better option, this is known as shelter. Conveniently, there is national guidance setting out the approach to both Evacuation and Shelter.
In the episode, we see a discussion about evacuation being ‘almost complete’, save for the elderly people who are reluctant to leave their homes. This is fairly accurate (if a bit judgy), as there could be many reasons that people may be reluctant to leave their homes. People will generally be less inclined to leave if they haven’t been given decent information to enable them to make informed decisions. There are also very limited powers to compel people to evacuate, as picked up on Twitter.
Our friend from Civil Contingencies Secretariat has joined the Royal Navy in investigating the hull of a sunken ship. Warning lights flash and some urgent sounding beeping leads to the navy aborting the mission and there appears to be an explosion.
This scenario seems to be directly influenced by the SS Richard Montgomery, an American WW2 cargo ship that sank in August 1944 off the coast of Kent, carrying 1,400 tonnes of high explosives. There is a risk of detonation at the mouth of the Thames Esturary and a Government report from 1970 showed a blast would produce a column of water and mud 1,000ft wide and reaching 10,000ft into the air, which would generate a 16ft ‘tidal wave’ travelling upstream in the Thames. For some reassurance, surveys in 2003, 2008 and 2013 seem to indicate no sign of increased risk. Sadly not the case in the episode.
Back in Whitehall we see that a new Home Secretary has been appointed (no doubt because his predecessor authorised the shooting of a journalist) and quickly rush into a COBR meeting (see this blog on COBR vs COBRA). Weirdly, despite a significant national emergency last year, there seems to have been no investment in the facilities. In reality, Downing Street recently spent £2.6m on a Comms Facility which they then decided not to use.
Like last season, it’s great that reference is being made to historical incidents. Very few emergencies are ‘unprecedented’ despite what the public messaging at the time might suggest. I don’t know much about the 1917 Nova Scotia explosion (yet, hello reading list!) but suspect the reference to ‘an explosion in Beirut’ is the ammonium nitrate explosion which tragically killed 218 people, caused 7,000 injuries and $15 billion of property damage, and left around 300,000 people homeless.
It seems that the explosion in the episode was caused by an earthquake rather than a detonation of the cargo on the ship, but the cargo may have been destabilised making the evacuation of the town even more pressing.
A Ukrainian man is dressed all in black. It’s not the most subtle characterisation, suggestive that he’s up to no good. A drone is unloaded from a suspicious-looking Peli case (which, incidentally, is a staple piece of emergency management equipment). A school class are distracted by a helicopter taking off from their grounds, and shortly afterwards it’s shot down by the armed drone, crashing back into the school.
Back in COBR, they already have a photograph of the teacher who was killed in the crash. Timescales are all over the place – Fraser has casually travelled between meetings in London and Kent twice, newspapers are shown breaking news without consideration for the time needed to print and distribute…but I can let it slide because of maintaining dramatic pace. In reality, though, things like casualty numbers would take some time, potentially hours, to confirm.
There is some pretty dense conversation covering intelligence assessments about the Ukrainians who carried out the attack and the diplomatic response options. It’s no surprise that the same people wrote Spooks, it feels a little like they are reverting to what they know.
Back in the coastal town, a Navy officer asks the lady from Civil Continegcnies Secratraiat “What is the point in you?” which is supremely clunky scriptwriting, but a legitimate question. CCS and other Government departments would, in reality, be very unlikely to be on the boat doing the defusing of bombs! Her response, is that she’s there representing Number 10.
We’ve got the warning lights and sirens again…and suddenly a huge explosion, far bigger than the first one. Our new CCS friend lasted 49 minutes, perhaps a comment on high staff turnover in the Cabinet Office?
On the land, they’re still loading busses to evacuate people (despite saying evacuation was almost complete earlier) which feels a bit late in the day. The wave from the explosion makes landfall very quickly, causing damage and destruction. My other observation is that the water is remarkably clear. Helpful for the telly, but in reality, the water would contain all sorts of unmentionables and hazards, which can make the response and recovery more dangerous and time-consuming. This will be a big clean up job for someone.
The Prime Minister (still played by Robert Carlyle) is concerned about Fraser and his whole team, which is a nice show of empathy, but also the rationale for why you don’t put your whole team in the same place at the same time. There are reported cyber-attacks and disruption to Government communications systems including the ‘Emergency Services Comms Network’ and direct hacking of the screens in COBR showing the message ‘Ruin Britania’.
And roll credits, that’s a wrap on episode one.
Overall – a different vibe to season 1, more security-focused plot lines and because we already know the characters they’re deeper into the drama already. Tune in next week for the second episode instalment!