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COBRA: Cyberwar S2E4 Walkthrough

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E4 Walkthrough

Reading Time: 5 minutes


How Sky described the episode: The team try to understand the latest discovery, while Francine’s criticism of Lord Singer is met with delight from the Labour leader. 

A brief recap on the wider context – in season one a geomagnetic storm knocked out power networks causing widespread chaos and (amongst other things) leading to a decision being taken to shoot a reporter. There’s mounting strength of feeling against the Prime Minister.

So far in season two, we’ve seen, well, A LOT – earthquakes off the Kent coast, an explosion of a sunken ship carrying munitions, coastal flooding, a helicopter crash carrying a notable Ukrainian, a cyberattack, radioactive blueberries as well as somebody poisoned with radiation and a dirty bomb.

If I’d have suggested that as an exercise scenario I’d have been laughed out of the room. (I have been for suggesting much less!). Developing an exercise is truly a dark art, and as emergency manager Luke Bird noted in 2014, you’re only ever a single inject away from accusations of straying into “the realms of fantasy.”

This episode starts with the Prime Minister gathering his most trusted (in the loosest sense) Ministers for a catch-up. It looks like the cyber attack and import of the radiation was a state-sponsored action, but there’s no suspect at the moment. Just based on the use of Polonium 210 would provide a fairly strong lead, given its use in the Litvinenko case.

A hacker (you can tell because they always sit in the dark and wear a hoodie) is editing a video about a politician “siding with the establishment rather than the will of people” feels close to the bone after the shenanigans in the House of Commons this week.

COBR is meeting now and discussing the rise of far-right extremism. I wasn’t really listening at this stage, because I was so distracted by what the screens in the background are showing.

They’re too far away to see the detail but I had a stab at what they could be showing…

screens in a meeting room

  • A This looks like it could be either some sort of topographic/digital elevation model or could be a chart of social media analysis?
  • B Duplicate of A (why bother?)
  • C CCTV footage from somewhere?
  • D This looks like it might be weather-related – a map on the right-hand side and then maybe a wind rose on the left? In which case, perhaps something similar to a CHEMET report for the potential dirty bomb?
  • E It’s not clear in the screengrab, but later in the same scene, this looks to be the online video from the cyber hackers Firestorm.
  • F Also looks to be footage from Firestorm. I’m not sure why either of these would need to be on repeat in COBR.
  • G I have no idea?! Is this an Audacity screen? Or just lots of mini DOS windows? Either way, I can’t figure out what it could helpfully be showing.
  • H Duplicate of D (again, why duplicate information that is already displayed?)

Some of that information is useful, but this is how I’d use the COBR screens:

  • 1 TV News channel (domestic channel) – to see what the public is seeing. Personally, I’d go with Sky News.
  • 2 TV News channel (foreign channel) – to see a snapshot of how it is being reported overseas.
  • 3 With the impact to cyber networks – some sort of analysis of their robustness – perhaps a summary of main SCADA system uptime
  • 4 The CHEMET modelling is a fairly good idea, that can stay.
  • 5 Maybe use this one for information on response capacity – what strategic resources are available/could be deployed?
  • 6 I’d keep this one free for video conferencing (as it doesn’t look like they have a screen for that) especially for dialling in the devolved administrations, or perhaps relevant Strategic Commanders from affected areas or wider experts (SAGE?).
  • 7  I’d use this to display the CRIP, the document produced as a single source of briefing information.

Lord Singer, the judge who has gotten himself into some hot water, is offered police protection given stated threats against him from fascists. He’s not keen and would prefer to jet off to Cyprus. There are also veiled threats to the Home Secretary, Prime Minister and his wife.

Oh dear, the irradiated body is a US citizen, and a scientist involved in classified research. That’s probably not great for diplomatic relations and probably means that we’re going to hear more from the truly awful Foreign Secretary (played brilliantly by David Haig).

A radicalised young man is seen readying some weapons. The last few episodes of COBRA season two were initially pulled from broadcast in the wake of the “no duff” murder of David Amess. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this part of the episode is heading. Yep.

The murder is also generating conspiracy theories and counter conspiracies; which feels pretty accurate. The Prime Minister has given the security services a clear direction to ‘deal with’ a problematic journalist. So we can also guess how that’s going to play out too.

The journalist in question is seen in a cafe speaking with an opposition politician. There is a lingering shot on a coffee cup with a mysterious logo on it. Has he also been poisoned? There are no immediate signs, but maybe something slower acting? More Polonium?

Fraser, the Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, is at a warehouse where the forensic investigation of the exploded ship is taking place. The voyage data recorder (VDR) is a bit like a black box from a plane and has been recovered. The data shows something unusual, a low frequency but high decibel noise 3.7 seconds before the explosion.

Back to Manchester where our journalist has received some encrypted files from an anonymous source, which seem to implicate the American Government in something, which looks like it could be related to the ship explosion as it briefly mentions sub-aquatic research. The computer the journalist is using has been hacked, as has the rest of his office. Spooks are waiting outside however before they can get to him he is bundled into a black Range Rover by unknown men.

Separately, armed officers are assembling to raid the home of the suspected cyber hacker.

We’ve got discordant strings. Tension is mounting!

And…they’ve raided the home of an old frail lady. Great! Luckily upstairs the hacker is found. So that’s one of the problems resolved.

Some shocking radio protocol from the Counter Terrorism Specialist Firearms Officers though.

We see the journalist beaten and shot, and then in the culmination of the episode Francine, the opposition politician causing waves, sees that the offices of the journalist have been firebombed. She’s allowed to get quite close to the building and there’s no evidence of safety cordons being in place.

That’s it for this week. Two more episodes to go!!


COBRA: Cyberwar S2E3 Walkthrough

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E3 Walkthrough

Reading Time: 4 minutes


Can you believe a whole week has passed and we’re back for another exciting instalment of Sky’s ’emergency management’ show COBRA!

Here’s the blub for the episode: COBRA is assembled when fresh disaster strikes, as a breach in Dover suggests an insidious threat. The PM’s strategy is tested. 

The episode opens back in Kent, this time at the Port of Dover. Border Force security guards are discussing a vehicle which they expect to test positive for radiation because it’s carrying declared radioactive cargo. When it doesn’t it alerts them that the radiation scanning system is non-operational.

We cut to Whitehall where an emergency briefing has been convened and GCHQ representatives announce that the Cyclamen scanners are offline, “the only defence to protect against terrorists driving a dirty bomb into the country”. This could, or could not be connected to the other instances of cyber hacking that the team have responded to in the previous episodes.

Programme Cyclamen is a collaboration since 2003 between the Border Force and the Home Office to detect the transport of illicit radioactive or nuclear material moving through British ports of entry. It covers air, rail and seaports, and scans vehicles, cargo and passengers. You may have seen some of these scanners depending on how much attention you pay when travelling.

The decision is taken that all port operations at Dover, the only port affected, should cease. This is probably a very wise decision. It’s not clear how long this has been an issue, but taking this action ensures that from that point any radioactive substances being brought into the country are contained to a small geographic area. However, as the team discuss, the implications of closing a port are significant, with impacts to supply chains being the primary issue.

Fraser, who is the Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, remarks that ‘contingencies’ for the continued supply of fresh produce have already been put in place. There’s no further detail given on this, and I suspect that it’s too soon into the incident for that to be anything more meaningful than the port operators implementing their surge capacity plans, to manage the backlog of arriving freight ships.

The Prime Minister is concerned about the public reaction to this news, and in the shadow of the recent real-life issues experienced with petrol and diesel, makes a very astute observation that even if there is no supply issue, there could be panic buying, going as far as to say “I want that port open again before there are riots in Tesco”.

Sidebar: colleague Chris Cocking wrote a brilliant blog post in 2020 which covered the ‘panic buying’ behaviour in the first COVID lockdown which I recommend reading.

In five hours 1,027 vehicles passed through the port without an effective scan. That’s actually pretty good quality information, it’s timely and likely to be accurate, so although it’s a lot of vehicles that need to be located, at least they have some idea of the scale of the problem.

A CCS official (the same one who was last seen floating presumed dead in the North Sea) has already been getting to grips with the data and has issued information to regional police services. It seems unlikely that this would be a CCS task, but maybe this is what the National Situation Centre will be getting up to behind their new curtains. Either way, one vehicle originating in Ukraine has been identified as being a particular risk and quicker than you can say CBRN, there is a fully equipped team (complete with armoured vehicles) intercepting the truck.

Inside are radioactive blueberries! This sounds a bit far fetched, but this is likely based on a real incident in 2016 where berries grown near Chernobyl were exported. The COBRA attendees are concerned that this could affect public confidence both about the Government’s handling of the situation as well as on healthy eating.

In response to this communications concern, a suggestion of ‘slapping a D Notice‘ on the media is suggested only to be immediately shot down.

We’re a good while into this week’s episode before they bring in the political drama, which is refreshing because the last episode was a bit heavy on that.

Our friendly analyst has discovered a problem with one of the missing trucks. Nothing more at the moment, but I suspect this isn’t the last we’ve heard about it.

An online activist is beginning to post information about the ‘nuclear berries’ which causes the Government to get twitchy, but the Prime Minister is probably right to wait for confirmation of all testing rather than speculate. In the absence of Government communications, there are instances of empty supermarket shelves, an increase in people drinking detergent and ‘mobs’ gathering and causing disruption at other ports.

The missing truck hasn’t been identified beneath Waterloo Station and ‘it doesn’t look good’. A Military CBRN team go in to investigate and identify an ‘off the scale’ level of radiation emanating from the truck. Based on this the advice to the PM, which is accepted is to seal off Central London.

My own view is that I think that is a bit of an overreaction based on what they know at this stage. If they had information also suggesting the presence of explosives then I think some limited safety cordon would be appropriate, as well as stopping train movements in and out of the station. My other issue is that so much of this would be operational information that the COBR team wouldn’t have in real-time. In reality, this response would be led by the Military and Police, briefing upwards to COBR via their ministers, but that takes time.

On further investigation, it turns out that the high levels of radiation are coming from a dead body inside the otherwise empty truck. Who is it? How did it get there? Who is responsible? These are all questions the PM has just at the episode ends, with more to follow in future weeks.

I’m not sure if Episode 4 is now available again. After the murder of an MP recently, Sky decided to pull some episodes of the series from broadcast out of respect (which perhaps is an indication of what is still to come). Stay tuned!

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E2 Walkthrough

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E2 Walkthrough

Reading Time: 3 minutes


How Sky described the episode: As the cyberattack jams communications, the Prime Minister convenes an emergency COBRA meeting following the devastation in Kent.

It’s a weird description because there seemed to be at least two COBR meetings in the first episode. But imagine. A Prime Minister that is quick to convene COBR.

Recently the UK Government published Coronavirus: lessons learned to date. This report notes that “during the pandemic, COBR was not functioning as effectively as it should have been” and heard evidence from Dominic Cummings that the meetings were “not conducive”. Something else that’s not that especially conducive is when the Prime Minister doesn’t turn up for five meetings.

The national crisis response machinery cannot be dependant on one individual and incident response shouldn’t hinge on national response arrangements. However, those arrangements are a vital part of demonstrating leadership, so seeing Robert Carlysle’s get an early grip is encouraging.

The COBR meeting starts with a situation update. That’s a helpful way to start this kind of meeting, to ensure everyone is operating from the same information. This is known, as the Commonly Recognised Information Picture or the ‘CRIP’. Although, I must tell you that, in my experience, the Cabinet Office are very protective over that terminology – just take a look at what their own Emergency Planning College website has to say.

What strikes me as a bit odd is that in the show the COBR facility has some really lovely display screens, which are just used to show the government crest, rather than anything useful.

We get a bit more about the cyberattack, that the hackers have found a zero-day vulnerability. This essentially means hackers take advantage of software using a flaw that is not known to developers, so they have no prior knowledge of the risk or available patches. This means it can take a bit longer to resolve.

Some cracks are beginning to show in the Cabinet team. Like in Season 1, I do like that they are showing these characters as complex people with their own baggage.

The action switches over to Kent, and to the Strategic ‘Command’ Centre. This is shown as being in a hangar in an airfield. Whilst it’s not impossible that would happen, but it is very, very unlikely. Oh, and ‘command’ in this sense is incorrect. The proper terminology is a Strategic Coordination Centre. This reflects that whilst organisations may have ‘primacy’ for different functions, there is no one organisation with ultimate ‘command’.

Typically TV dramas choose locations that have little bearing to reality, so it’s impressive attention to detail to see an exterior of Victoria Street just before they cut to a scene set at the Labour Party HQ.

Incidentally, there are a lot of side-eyes being thrown in this episode. It’s building up to something. I can sense it.

There are so many thanks going wrong at the moment it’s hard to keep up. That’s also a factor in real-life emergencies. They are incredibly dynamic and ascertaining a good overview of what has happened can take some time.

The disruption to communications is a key concern. We’ve had a bit of information about phones and emails, but there hasn’t been much said about data. There are some contingencies available, such as RAYNET, although these fallback systems often don’t have the capability of other systems have and generally don’t have high levels of familiarity. So it’s not a perfect solution.

There is a ‘missing people’ board in the SCC. That also seems a bit misplaced and would be more likely to be seen as spontaneous posters and flyers attached to relevant local buildings, rather than in the ‘command’ room.

And finally, the line of the episode, massively understates just how complex and time consuming the period after the emergency response can be. I doubt we’re out of the woods just yet.

There was a lot of plot happening in this episode, and not much emergency management to pick out. Hopefully, we’ll have a bit more to say after episode 3.

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E1 Walkthrough

COBRA: Cyberwar S2E1 Walkthrough

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.

Evacuation DiagramIn 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.

Beirut 2020 explosion animation

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.

COBRA screen grab

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!

Ramen Resolution – Ippudo Villers St

Ramen Resolution – Ippudo Villers St

Reading Time: 2 minutes


I’m back back back again with another ramen blog, and it feels like an eternity since my last post.

Post lockdown life has resumed and I was heading to see one of my favourite artists (L Devine, stream her album, buy her merch!) on Tuesday at a gig that has been postponed twice. I decided to swing by Ippudo on Villers Street for a quick bowl of noodles beforehand.

My very first foray into the world of restaurant ramen was at an Ippudo in Tokyo, so it always has an air of nostalgia.

I’ve walked past the Villers Street branch a lot (like, a lot) but this was my first time popping inside. It’s a small branch and the menu is limited. There are appetisers, but they’re only available as ‘specials’ not as standard menu items.

One of the things I like most about ramen is the ‘no messing’ approach. We’d been sat only for a few moments before our order had been taken and steaming bowls had been presented to the table.

Nick ordered the Akamaru Modern Special (a classic tonkotsu with garlic and miso) and I plumped for the Hakata Nikuton (tonkotsu with a sweet and spicy pork) which was a location exclusive.

Before tucking in to the noodles I tried the strawberry sake. It was really tasty cloudy-style sake and came out a slightly less lurid colour than the bottle indicated; but made from American rice and American strawberries it felt a little inauthentic! (side note: apparently this sake is good mixed 50:50 with milk…which I’m curious to try!).

My noodle broth was hotter than the surface of the sun. Sadly I scalded my tongue on the very first mouthful. Although that didn’t affect the flavour, it did affect my enjoyment! The broth was rich and had that texture where you’re lips stick together momentarily, even after a good lick! The spicy pork was very thinly sliced, and almost dissolved on your tongue like those mouthwash strips that were popular a few years ago…but less minty.

Nick’s was delivered in what I would call ‘pho style’  with toppings served separately. I quite like that idea.

But here’s his review in his own words:

Now, I also like a good ramen spoon, but my personal preference is for the flat ladle-type spoon rather than the Chinese-style spoon. Different spoons for different folks I guess!

I’ll will 100% be back to Ippudo Villiers Street – it’s fast, it’s convenient and it’s delicious. My only tip, give the boiling liquid a minute to cool down!

Resilience Strategy – An Open Response to the Call for Evidence

Resilience Strategy – An Open Response to the Call for Evidence

Reading Time: 15 minutes


The UK Government has just closed a ‘call for evidence’ seeking views to inform the development of a new National Resilience Strategy, setting out the vision for resilience to 2030.

This process was (technically) open to anyone, so I put in my own response. It runs to slightly less than 9,000 words. The management of emergencies is something which should be important to everyone, especially after the last 18 months and in the face of a changing climate.

The call for evidence was structured into sections. I only answered relevant questions (in italics below) and fully expect that my views won’t be shared by everyone. That’s a good thing, it means we can have more debate, which is one of the biggest things that I think is missing; talking about this more openly.

Questions on Vision and Principles:

Do you agree with the proposed vision of the Resilience Strategy? Is there anything you would add, amend, or remove?

It is encouraging that the Government is reflecting on COVID experiences and has recognised that change is required.

A UK National Resilience Strategy would go some way towards meeting one of the six Sendai Framework objectives. That Framework also runs to 2030 and therefore it should be considered whether this is an opportunity to more formally set out the UKs approach to meeting the remaining objectives.

The vision reads as political manifesto rather than as actionable policy. What does the ‘most resilient nation’ mean in practice? The UK being the most resilient implies a league table situation which some nations are judged to be at the bottom of. How does the Government  propose to measure and report on its resilience compared to that of other nations? The UK model is quite different to many other nations and this would make comparison tricky. This is borne out through existing international programmes such as UNISDR Resilient Cities.

Whilst a convenient image, I feel that terms like ‘bounce back’ or ‘return to normal’ don’t really capture the difficulties, challenges and complexities of the post disaster situation, and can generate a condition where learning is not a fundamental part of the process.

Do you agree with the principles laid out for the strategy? Is there anything you would add, amend, or remove?

Risk Assessment

  • The recognition of the impact of vulnerability as well as risk impact and likelihood is positive. Communities are not static not homogenous and different factors influence how people respond to risk. 
  • Twigg (2007) offered a report to DFID with some perspectives on the characteristics of a disaster-resilient community.
  • Taleb (2012) also offers some considerations on the status of being anti-fragile, which could be helpful for reframing and taking a more vulnerability informed approach.

Prevention, Mitigation and Recovery Investment

  • There needs to be more national energy put in to creating a culture of learning where people feel safe to share lessons without fear of blame. Failure to learn from past incidents is well documented (Pollock (2013), Kernick (2021)) and I couldn’t see explicit references to learning in the documentation.
  • The work of Resilience First (2020) is also helpful for considering the ‘ingredients and enablers’ of resilience in an urban context, but with broad applicability.

Empowering Everyone

  • The significant contribution of volunteers (both formal and informal) to the COVID response is evidence of untapped capacities. However, the approach needs to be sensitive and recognise that many people may have felt obligated to volunteer due to shortfalls in statutory response. Therefore ‘empowering’ could be seen as dismissive of their COVID experience.
  • Similarly, sensitively managed but open and honest public debate would assist in keeping the Resilience Strategy grounded as well as manage public expectations (Braw 2021).

Questions on Risk and Resilience:

Is there more that the Government can do to assess risk at the national and local levels? If so, what?

Since being introduced there have been methodological issues with the risk assessment process. A great deal of progress has been made however, gaps remain.

I anticipate that other responses may recommend making risk information more public-friendly (i.e. risk registers should also be the vehicle to inform of actions that can be taken to mitigate and reduce risk). I disagree with this and would rather see comprehensive and technical risk assessments, the output of that analysis then being taken to inform specific risk communication products. I don’t believe that the risk register itself should be a the only risk communication channel.

The Anytown model which I initially developed in 2013 (Hogan 2013) has been used effectively in London to explore understanding of cascading failure across different sectors arising from interdependencies. This models is noted (NIST 2016) as a useful way to visualise system interdependency impacts among multi-disciplinary teams.

Significant  inequity in COVID impacts has been widely reported (House of Commons 2020, ONS 2020). This is evidence that risk is a more complex and nuanced equation just the product of impact and likelihood. Consideration needs to be given to vulnerability assessments (Twigg 2007) within the wider determination of risk.

The risk assessment process and policy which follows, is also vague in relation risks which arise as a result of the action or inaction of the Government. For instance, is Brexit considered an emergency if it was a policy choice and the implications were anticipated? Similarly the inaction of the Government with regards to building safety remediation.  

Is there more that the Government can do to communicate about risk and risk appetite with organisations and individuals? If so, what?

There has been a great deal of local risk-related messaging, however it may assist behaviour change if there was a nationally coordinated approach informed by risk communication evidence (for instance, Lofstedt 2010). The SF72 initiative (SF72 2021) represents an accessible and empathetic approach towards risk communication, which contrasts with more paternalistic approaches which dominate. There has been no all encompassing communication activity since the Preparing for Emergencies booklet in 2004. There are some discrete communication campaigns, lead by individual organisations (e.g. WeatherReady (Met Office 2021)) or by local resilience areas (30 Days 30 Ways UK, 2021). However it would be helpful for all of these activities to form part of a larger coordinated and coherent strategy.

The Government should put in place processes to avoid risk information being shared via the media which is only accessible via paywalls. There were many examples during COVID where important announcements were made via the broadcast press but the detail could not be accessed without a subscription. This is inappropriate.  

How could the Government make risk assessment and data more accessible by frontline personnel in an emergency?

I’m unclear about the purpose of this. There needs to be more consideration of what data and information it is helpful for frontline responders to have ‘in an emergency’ as opposed to sharing that information more proactively to enable risk to be mitigated where possible.  

How could the current local risk assessment process, managed through Local Resilience Forums, be strengthened to help local partners?

The Royal Academy of Engineering review into the National Security Risk Assessment is welcomed and I understand that this includes recommendations on the interface between the national and local risk assessments. There have been previous explorations of the methodology also, including recommendations in the Blackett Review (GO Science 2011) relating to the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’.

Personally, I also welcome the continual methodological changes which incorporate feedback on the process from resilience partners. However, it may be helpful to explore options for a risk management module available via Resilience Direct so that formatting changes etc can be managed centrally leaving local capacity the time to focus on the assessment and local context.

Questions on Responsibilities and Accountability:

Do you think that the current division of resilience responsibilities between Central Government, the Devolved Administrations, local government, and local responders is correct? If not, why?

The responsibilities of Local Resilience Forums have evolved but have also been confused during the response to COVID and Brexit. Government’s conception of LRF’s as ‘delivery’ bodies (Gillespie, 2020) is contrary to their stated role of being ‘cooperation’ (Cabinet Office 2013a) or ‘planning’ bodies (Cabinet Office, 2013b).

Responsibilities between different levels of response, national, regional and local, as set out in the CONOPS are out of date and require review (Cabinet Office 2013c). The CONOPS also describes levels of emergency, however this concept does not appear to translate through to any other central government emergency response policy.

I would be interested to understand how the National Situation Centre will be utilised, including how information it generates will assist response and recovery at the local level. I would welcome an update from the Government on the announcement regarding a Civil Disaster Response Taskforce (Hansard 2017) . Both of these structures sit outside of current policy and guidance and therefore it is important that there is wide understand on how they will operate.

How can the UK Central Government, DAs, local and regional forms of government and local responders better collaborate on resilience?

There is a need for trust and openness between national and local tiers and the broader emergency management profession with regards to risk and resilience arrangements. Government has no obligations under the Civil Contingencies Act and this should be addressed, perhaps by elevating all Lead Government Departments (as a minimum) to Category 2 responder status.

It is helpful that the UK Resilience Forum meeting minutes are published, however there could be greater transparency and utility made of this forum to enable organisations with national footprints to have a more sensible route for engaging.  

What role, if any, should the UK Central government have in assuring that local areas are effectively carrying out their resilience responsibilities, whilst also respecting local responsibilities?

Whilst there are some indicators of good practice (Cabinet Office 2013d) for local area resilience and recently published resilience standards (Cabinet Office 2020), it would be helpful in establishing overall assessments of resilience if there were greater coherence between existing assurance mechanisms.

Use of locally elected representatives could offer another route for assurance and scrutiny of resilience arrangements. There are some examples of this (GLA 2021a) however the Government could provide central guidance on scrutiny of resilience by elected representatives.  

What do you consider the advantages and disadvantages of the current legislative basis for resilience?

The CCA provides a structure for planning and assigns duties on organisations. I feel this is a more inclusive and therefore offers a more holistic approach to emergency management than creating a new agency which has power of direction over other entities, which could undermine the generally cooperative approach.

However, there have been numerous examples during the response to Brexit and COVID where plans and local capacities have not been utilised, and where new emergency legislation has been introduced when the Part 2 of the Civil Continencies Act may have been sufficient and had more opportunity for parliamentary process.

Questions on Partnerships:

Do you think that the resilience of CNI can be further improved? If so, how?

CNI resilience is typically focused on acute shocks at the expense of more chronic issues.

The age and capacity of some CNI systems and the compounding effects of resource pressures should be considered carefully. 

I’m pleased in the call for evidence documentation to see references to systemic resilience. I would again point to some good practice in this area in the for of the Anytown model from London LRF (Hogan 2013, NIST 2016).

What do you think is the most effective way to test and assure the resilience of CNI? To what extent do you think regulators should play a role in testing the resilience of CNI systems and operators?

I believe that there would be huge benefits to working collaboratively with regulators/industry and local resilience areas to ensure a comprehensive approach to testing and assurance.

During an emergency, what do you think should be the role of the operators of CNI in ensuring continued provision of essential services (e.g. water, electricity, public transport)? How can the Government support CNI owners or operators during an emergency?

I would strongly recommend the Government consider increasing the responder status of some CNI operators, such as some transport providers and operators who already have well established operational ‘response’ roles and are critical to effective integrated emergency management. In an urban setting especially, there is a requirement for transport involvement in most emergency response, so that should be reflected in the legislation.

Academic and research organisations

What can the Government do to make collaboration between academic and research organisations more effective?

There need to be closer relationships between Government, Professionals and Research communities so that research can be commissioned which feeds in to national objectives, and has impactful operational impact where possible.

The independence of the academic sector needs to be respected and there should be an ability for research to be determined beyond what is helpful for UK Resilience. However, the UK could set out broad research themes and provide funding and access for research activities. One example of this is the National Institute of Health Research’s Health Protection Unit in Emergency Preparedness and Response at King’s College London (NIHR 2015).  

Are there areas where the role of research in building national resilience can be expanded?

I would like to see academic accreditation of all EPC courses and other national training and the possibility of development of modular graduate programmes.

Questions on Community and Local Resilience:

Do you agree that everyone has a part to play in improving the UK’s resilience? If not, why not?

Empowering local communities to be part of the conversation about resilience and engaged at the appropriate times in response and recovery will assist in the objectives of the Resilience Strategy being met.

Do you know where to access information about emergencies that could affect you?

There needs to be a greater focus on education. Initiatives such as the London Curriculum (GLA 2021b) to provide locally specific resources and teaching materials targeted at different Key Stage levels is a good example of what could be possible. If each LRF or region could produce resources to assist school children to, for example, consider local flood risk it would embed resilience thinking and approaches at the earliest opportunity.

Have recent emergencies (e.g. COVID-19 pandemic, flooding, terrorist attacks) made you think differently about risks or changed the way you prepare for emergencies?

COVID and Brexit have made me consider resilience differently.

My main reflection is that I feel insulted that the Government demonstrated such little awareness of existing plans and/or confidence in local responders.

Are there any barriers in accessing local volunteering schemes or finding community groups that discuss local emergency planning? If so, what are the barriers?

Where volunteering worked best through COVID it was where existing relationships existed with the voluntary sector and agile local groups were able to bring capacity quickly. More coordinated approaches to regulate and control volunteering (and philanthropy) were unsuccessful because they moved to slowly.

I would encourage the Government not to discount the unseen and informal volunteering that will have taken place during the last year also.

The largest constraint relates to having sufficient resource (time and investment) to engage meaningfully with the voluntary and community sector.

Questions on Investment:

Are there examples of where investment (whether by the Government, by businesses or by individuals) has driven improvements in resilience?

The development of city resilience strategies in several UK cities was reliant on private  financial support from the Rockefeller organisation.

The UK Government should make more funding available on a business case basis for specific resilience projects. This would generate innovation at a local level and would likely inform wider approaches so would have a trickle down effect. Funding for Anytown was provided by Defra as a Community Resilience project funding, but it’s application and legacy has been far beyond what was expected (Hogan 2013).

Questions on Resilience in an Interconnected World:

Where do you see the UK’s resilience strengths?

I love the diversity of the UK Resilience Sector. It’s so all encompassing that I don’t even know where it’s boundaries are. Resilience is a whole society issue and therefore the sector is and should be similarly broad. This approach can mean complexity and blurred lines, however it provides the most holistic approach.

I would have serious reservations about a move to create a UK FEMA, which would likely serve to absolve other organisations/functions of their responsibilities.

Are there any approaches taken by other countries to resilience that you think the UK could learn from?

It is possible that there is learning, but international models require research and analysis to determine applicability. It would not be effective to just lift an idea from another nation without having considered how it would be implemented in a UK context.

Which of the UK’s international relationships and programmes do you think are most important to the UK’s resilience?

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

What international risks have the greatest impact on UK resilience?

The Global Risk Report (WEF 2021) provides a good articulation of strategic global risk, and regularly highlights the importance of climate change and the impacts to food and water scarcity and global migration.

Questions on the Civil Contingencies Act

The CCA (section 1) defines an emergency as:

  • an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom,
  • an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment of a place in the United Kingdom, or
  • war, or terrorism, which threatens serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom

Does the above definition reflect your understanding of an emergency, and if not how does the definition need to be expanded within the CCA?

No concerns about the definition, however it may be helpful at the outset for the definitions to include references to the prevention, mitigation and recovery phases, not just response.  

Is the current designation of Category 1 and 2 responders appropriate? If not, what would be the merits of changing the identities and/or status of responders within the CCA?

Government departments should be designated as Category 2 responders as a minimum, but with some additional responsibilities regarding risk assessment.

I would also recommend that strategic transport operators, all CNI operators, strategic financial institutions, relevant parts of the justice system and the Met Office are made Category 2 responders.

I would not propose making a change to the non categorisation of the Voluntary Sector and the Military, however, it would be useful to review the guidance relating to these sectors as their positions have evolved.

Should elected local figures (e.g. Council Leaders, MPs, Metro Mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners) have greater involvement in emergency planning and preparative exercising, response and recovery and in what way?

Enhanced scrutiny on resilience matters (from elected local figures) may assist in driving progress and change through having a more open public conversation.

Are the current duties on Category 1 and 2 responders, as described in the CCA, appropriate?

The current duties are appropriate in relation to preparedness and response, however there is insufficient guidance and description of duties in the response phase or on the requirements regarding lessons learned processes.

Does the framework set out in the CCA provide sufficient clarity of the different roles and responsibilities of Category 1 and 2 responders?

The CCA is sufficiently clear in terms of its duties. However, it should be noted that responder organisations have duties outside of the CCA in relation to resilience. There would be some benefit in understanding how all the legislative aspects fit together.

Are existing mechanisms for oversight and assurance of organisations involved in resilience adequate?

Respective inspecting bodies undertake organisation or sector specific assurance. The gap is in assessing whole system resilience arrangements. There were some good attempts at this as part of the Olympics in 2012, and there was potential for the National Capabilities Survey to focus on this.  

Do the arrangements as set out in the CCA provide the LRF Chair and Secretariat with sufficient means by which they can effectively coordinate contingency planning of Category 1 and 2 responders in their area?

The processes and structures are included, and barring some local variations, and generally applied consistently. However there is wide variation in available resoyrce, it’s application and local delivery. It would be helpful for the guidance relating to the operation of LRFs to be updated to match Government’s position and for there to be an greater allocation of centrally provided funding for cross-cutting issues.

A Minister of the Crown may use High Court or Court of Session proceedings to enforce duties under Part 1 of the CCA upon a Category 1 or 2 responder. Is this the right way to enforce obligations under the CCA if duties are not met?

These arrangements have not been implemented, so there is no practical evidence, but they seem appropriate.

Does the CCA sufficiently consider recovery arrangements? If not, how could this be improved?

No, the Act doesn’t even include the word recovery. 

Are the responsibilities related to information sharing and cooperation sufficient for ensuring an effective multi-agency response?

Duties are appropriate for the listed organisations, however as recommended earlier, the Category 2 duties relating to information sharing should be extended to Government Departments to assist effective local planning.

Are LRFs/Strategic Coordinating Groups (SCGs) fulfilling a sufficient role in terms of planning, response and recovery? If not, what are the barriers to this?

The blurred lines between the LRF and SCG (planning/response) have been a source of concern during COVID. This implies a lack of understanding at national level about arrangements which have been developed nationally. There is a lot than can be achieved through cooperation and collaboration, and in my view LRFs do not need to be made legal bodies.

Should specific duties be placed upon central government in Part 1 of the CCA, and if so, what would these be?

Yes, I would see this as being largely similar to Cat 2 organisations but with some specific additions with regards to setting national policy and providing risk assessment information and data.

The CCA sets out strict conditions which must be met for emergency regulation to be made – this is known as the ‘triple lock’. Are these conditions still appropriate and, if not, how could the ‘triple lock’ be improved?

Emergency Regulations were not invoked under this arrangements for COVID. The Government should set out the rationale for the approach it took and provide clarity on when it sees the Part 2 arrangements being invoked. These should be tested through exercising with local level responders.

Should the regional coordinator role be retained? If yes, why is this the case, and who should be eligible to fill the position?

This role is unclear and would benefit from greater definition, linking with further clarity on Part 2 powers in general. However, anyone fulfilling such a role should be able to demonstrate suitable experience, training and qualification.

Are there institutions and positions that have come into existence after this CCA was developed which should be included in the statutory guidance? For example, Police and Crime Commissioners and Combined Authority Mayors (‘Metro Mayors’).

The range of organisations will always be dynamic. Could the Act be written in such a way as to avoid regular updates just to add organisations?

Would you like to note anything in regards to the statutory guidance of the CCA?



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Braw, E. (2021) Swedes are expected to prepare for emergencies. Coronavirus shows why Britons should be too. The Guardian, 13 March 2021.

Cabinet office (2013) Lexicon of UK Civil Protection terminology version 2.1.1.

Cabinet Office (2013b) The role of Local Resilience Forums: A reference document.

Cabinet Office (2013c) Responding to Emergencies. The UK Central Government Concept of Operations.

Cabinet Office (2013d) Expectations and Indicators of Good Practice Set for Category 1 and 2 Responders.

Cabinet Office (2020) National Resilience Standards for Local Resilience Forums.

Gillespie, J. (2020) Guide for Local Authorities and Local Resilience Forums on the system to support those who are clinically extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. 24 March 2020.

GLA (2021a) Fire, Resilience and Emergency Planning Committee. Greater London Authority.

GLA (2021b) London Curriculum. Greater London Authority.

GO Science (2011) Blackett Review of High Impact Low Probability Risks.

Hansard (2017) HC Deb. Vol 783. Column 72. 22 June 2017.

Hogan, M (2013). Anytown – Infrastructure Interdependencies and Resilience. London Resilience.

House of Commons (2020) Unequal impact? Coronavirus and BAME people. House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee. Third Report of Session 2019–21.

Kernick, G. (2021) Catastrophe and Systemic Change: Learning from the Grenfell Tower Fire and Other Disasters. London Publishing Partnership.

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Met Office (2021) About WeatherReady.

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NIST (2016) National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication Guide 5: Assessing Energy System Dependencies U.S. Department of Commerce.

ONS (2020) Coronavirus and the social impacts on disabled people in Great Britain: September 2020. Office for National Statistics.

Pollock, K. (2013) Review of Persistent Lessons Identified Relating to Interoperability from Emergencies and Major Incidents since 1986.

Resilience First (2020) A Resilience Guide for Our New World.

SF72, (2021) SF72 In An Emergency. Department of Emergency Management, San Francisco.

Taleb, N.N. (2012) Antifragile. Penguin Books.

Twigg, J. (2007) Characteristics of a disaster-resilient community: A guidance note produced for DFID.

WEF (2021) Global Risk Report 2021. World Economic Forum.

Book Review: Catastrophe and Systemic Change by Gill Kernick

Book Review: Catastrophe and Systemic Change by Gill Kernick

Reading Time: 4 minutes


Every now and then a book comes along that is so spot on, you can’t believe it hadn’t already been written.

That’s the case with Gill Kernick‘s book Catastrophe and Systemic Change: Learning from the Grenfell Tower Fire and Other Disasters.

Book cover: Catastrophe and Systemic Change by Gill Kernick

Gill lived on the 21st floor of Grenfell Tower between 2011 and 2014. We all have our own recollections of the morning of 14 June 2017. Like many of us, Gill watched the Tower burn. Unlike many of us, her former neighbours were amongst the 72 people who tragically died. Her book is dedicated to them.

In part, the book is an exploration of the systemic issues behind why we don’t learn from disasters. Kernick has worked in high hazard industries and brings examples from there as well as from other disasters to show repeated failures to bring about post-disaster change. But her book is also intensely personal, and in parts reads like a diary, like she is making sense of her own emotions and thoughts, and processing all of this during a pandemic when other learning is also falling by the wayside.  I didn’t expect the book to make me emotional, but it did.

Before discussing what I found particularly resonant about the book, a little disclaimer. I’ve been involved in the response to Grenfell since the early hours of that night in 2017. I’m still involved now. The Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry is continuing. For those reasons, I won’t be commenting on chapters 1 and 2 which consider the specifics of Grenfell, but will focus on the themes of learning and systemic change.

The book catalogues failed opportunities to learn. There is a whole swathe of documents, reports, investigations, inquiries and research that show that despite assurances rarely do ‘lessons identified’ translate to ‘lessons learned’ at either the scale or pace required. And this continues, on 24 June 2021 at the Manchester Arena Inquiry, there was considerable discussion about the collective failure to learn lessons from an emergency exercise. 

Right there on page 6 my frustration is in black and white “the system is designed to ensure we do not learn”.

My biggest personal professional frustration is the repeat lessons. To ‘learn’ something, again and again, is to demonstrate that it is not actually being learned or addressed sufficiently. I’ve worked in organisations where the focus is on putting in place systems and processes to ‘help’, but which all too often just result in shuffling bits of paper around.

Kernick draws a distinction between piecemeal change (which involves looking at the system and making changes within it) and systemic change (which considers the conditions and cultures within which the system operates). She asserts that systemic change requires disruption of the status quo, but observes that kindness can be more disruptive than aggression.

We live in a complex, messy, often unpredictable world. I think it gives us a sense of comfort to think that we are ‘in control’ and can forecast what will happen in a given situation, but the reality is that emergent behaviours and complex dynamics between systems mean that we are only just scratching the surface.

I’ve blogged previously about work to understand emergent behaviour (‘sit in the messiness’ and ‘pop up emergency planning’), interdependencies between systems as well as my desire to see more empathetic approaches towards emergency management. It’s heartening to see that somebody outside the emergency management field also sees the same issues. It gives me a new resolve to try to address them.

To operate effectively in an increasingly complex world, Kernick suggests that governments need to change how they approach public engagement. I’d go further; this is not limited to engagement, governments need to embrace flatter, more organic structures for emergency response and move beyond ‘command and control’.

Emergencies and disasters often have high levels of uncertainty. This calls for what Kernick refers to as ‘the democratisation of expertise’. None of us individually have all the answers; we need to work together to make sense of a situation and determine a course of action. It’s an unspoken principle that runs through emergency management. That’s why we have COBR, once described to me as “Whitehall in miniature”, which brings together a bunch of people to find a collective answer. The same applies to Local Resilience Forums and Strategic Coordinating Groups. They are structures that allow knowledge and expertise to be pooled.   

And those structures need to be more representative of the communities they serve. We need people with different lived experiences to shape a response that will be better for everyone.

Kernick moves then to consider the role of accountability and scrutiny in Government. The conclusion generally seems to be that structures for scrutiny are okay, but the willingness or ability of governments to act on that scrutiny is low. There is no structure that can compel public inquiry recommendations to be addressed. Similarly, the Prevention of Future Deaths reports and rail industry incident reports and many others too. They all swirl around, unaddressed, in a soup of known issues ready to boil over the next time there is an incident.

So, why don’t we learn? It’s a question I come back to a lot and which this book has helped me to explore. Through the book Kernick goes on a journey about learning, expressing what initially seems to be curiosity, but then becomes increasingly frustrated and ultimately becoming incredulous. I’m not quite at that stage just yet, but I do think that there is a requirement to turn the mirror on ourselves and really examine the conditions and beliefs which we hold on to, which might be stopping us from making more progress.

And so, we come back to where we started, that systemic change requires “a tribe of disrupters” and I hope this book galvanises emergency managers across the land to be braver and to disrupt with kindness.

Book Review – The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

Book Review – The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun

Reading Time: 2 minutes


Hot on the heels of my last book review here comes another!

The Disaster Tourist by Korean autjor Yun Ko-eun tells the story of Yona, who’s worked for Seoul-based travel company Jungle for 10 years, offering package holidays to destinations in disaster zones.

The Disaster Tourist: Wish You Weren't Here book cover by Yub Ko-eun

When she tries to quit after a #MeToo incident, her boss tries to buy her silence with a free trip to Mui, a remote Vietnamese island home to one of the company’s least popular disaster tours. In return, all she needs to provide is a full report on how to improve the itinerary.

To begin with, all seems okay. She joins 5 other people on the trip and has a bit of an adventure out to see some volcanoes. But things start hotting up when she becomes trapped on the island and begins to figure out what is happening around her – a tale of surreal conspiracy and powerful corporate entities plotting to stage a plausible disaster.

First published in Korean in 2013 but translated into English in 2020 by Lizzie Buehler sometimes it feels like the characters are a bit thin; we hear nothing of Yona’s life outside of work and her love story comes across as just lukewarm. Of course, as an emergency manager, I also naturally took issue at the use of ‘natural disaster’ throughout (see here for why natural disasters don’t exist).

There were also sections of the book, later in the story, which I found myself reflecting on in ways other readers perhaps wouldn’t. As emergency managers we develop similar stories for training exercises, and the faceless/nameless identities of the characters in those exercises seemed all too familiar whilst reading this.

It’s a short book at just 180 or so pages. I read it to a background of TV news showing Hurricane Ida making landfall in Louisianna, which seemed especially resonant. As Yona herself contemplates “disaster lays dormant in every corner, like depression. You never knew when it might spring into terrible action”.

The Disaster Tourist is thought-provoking throughout (especially as an emergency manager) but I suspect it takes on a slightly different relevance for everyone now contemplating post-pandemic travel.

And finally, it’s unlikely that other readers would draw a similar parallels, but this section seemed prophetic having been written in 2013…

Section of text extracted from The Disaster Tourist

Ramen Resolution – Goto

Ramen Resolution – Goto

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I was passing through the south west of the UK last week with some time to kill. Naturally, I took to Google to find some noodles!

The first recommendation was in Exmouth, but on further investigation it wasn’t ramen, just regular noodles. No thanks. Not this. 

In a mysterious place, the oft neglected page two of Google, I found a news article singing the praises of Goto in ExeterGoto in Exeter. It wasn’t completely out of my way, so off I set!

There were free tables when I walked in, but it was approaching 19:30 and they had some bookings so I was asked to wait outside for a few minutes.

After what felt like forever (but was actually about 12 minutes) I was beckoned back inside, with a wave which, I imagine, they keep for regular patrons!

Hand painted murals adorn the walls, they’re pretty cool, and remind me of the ramen joint I visited in Boston.

I’d had time to study the menu so ordered as I sat down – restauranting like a pro!! 

The starter selection was a little limited, but I chose the vegetable tempura. The courgette was deliciously crispy but the sweet potato seemed to lack a bit of flavour. 

Tonkotsu then arrived before me. However, I have to be honest, it was a bit disappointing. The bamboo shoots were really tasty and the chasu slice was well cooked. But that thick, stick-to-your-mouth broth was nowhere to be seen. This was more like brown onion soup, thin and watery. And it had iceberg lettuce in it?! 

The table opposite me raved about their sushi though, so maybe ramen just isn’t Goto’s speciality?

If you’re passing through Exeter then definitely check it out, the customer service was great – quick, friendly and for the table who were a bit unsure of what to order they gave lots of recommendations. However, manage your expectations, this is not tonkotsu as you might know it elsewhere.

Book Review: The Premonition by Michael Lewis

Book Review: The Premonition by Michael Lewis

Reading Time: 5 minutes


This is the first book review I’ve written since being in secondary school, which…well, was a while ago, so go easy on me. I was inspired by a tweet a few weeks ago…

There has been some chatter both online and offline recently about the ‘visibility of emergency management’. Professor David Alexander’s article last summer asked “where are the emergency planners?“. The Emergency Management Growth Initiative has been seeking to bring greater awareness. And there have been recent challenges to the narrative that ‘plans didn’t exist’ for the UK response to the COVID pandemic. 

Generally, there’s a view from within, that that emergency management needs to be more mainstream, especially in the minds of political leaders. 

Over the last 9 years I’ve also tried to use this blog as a way to bring greater visibility to emergency management issues; most directly in an early post about breaking out of the bunker, which is simultaneously the natural habitat of the Emergency Manager but can also be what holds us back as a profession.

It was with great excitement that I ordered Michael Lewis’ book The Premonition, about a group of like-minded (and like-frustrated!) individuals who know that something serious needs to be done about pandemic planning. The book tells how a small group initiated and then performed repeated course corrections to US pandemic planning in the face of indifferent, layered, and fragmented bureaucracies. Speaking about the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009 one of the cast notes “there was no one driving the bus” and that despite pockets of good work across the country, the formal bodies people looked to for leadership (the Centre for Disease Control gets an especially scathing review) were deeply dysfunctional.

The book repeatedly asks the question “What happens when the people in charge of managing the risks have no interest in them?”. Pretty much every time it circles back to passionate people fighting to be heard and finally breaking through (often to be un- or under-appreciated).

Like Love Actually, there are several intertwined stories at play. Initially, each of the main characters (they’re actually real people) are doing their own wonderful things in splendid isolation, solving local problems using local means. But characters are brought together through chance meetings, introductions or happenstance, and realise their collective power.

One observation is that for a Public Health Officer in the States, there is no defined career path. I’ve heard similar representations about Emergency Management. This is thought to represent a problem because it means such a diversity of approaches and backgrounds and therefore a lack of a common approach. However, I would argue that this allows multiple perspectives to be more easily readily and more organically, but agree that some standardisation could be beneficial.

Like in an emergency, rapid response is vital to control and reduce the impact of disease outbreaks. The response to outbreaks and emergencies often needs to be instinctive, Kahneman’s ‘System 1’ rather than the more considered ‘System 2’. As one of the protagonists remarks about a Hepatitis C outbreak “if we had waited for enough evidence to be published in journals then we would have already lost,” and similarly, later in the book talking about wildfire response, someone remarks “you cannot wait for the smoke to clear – once you can see things clearly it’s already too late.”

Active vs passive choice seems to be another recurring theme throughout The Premonition, reminiscent of the Trolley Problem:

In particular, there is a chapter that considers a response to potential health issues following a Californian mudslide and one of the stars of the book is described as “She processes information quickly and spits out a decision fast, that makes people nervous. You don’t find people like that in government.”

Considering the profession, or at least the decision-makers background, there is an observation that the Homeland Security Council was “staffed by military types who spent their days considering attacks from hostile foreigners, not the flu” and that this had the effect of cognitive narrowing, choosing to not see the things which were unfamiliar. 

One of the characters talks about how they wanted to try to get the President, then George W Bush, to pay attention to the widespread impact that a serious pandemic could have across all society, not just healthcare. I was particularly amused that rather than formal submissions and briefings, actually what got the President interested was providing him with an annotated history book.

An intensivist doctor talking about touch clinical decisions remarks that “I felt like my best when shit hits the fan. I focus like a laser when everything is going to shit” and someone else mentions “You are going to make mistakes. The sin is making the same mistake twice and best is to learn from other people’s mistakes.”

The Premonition isn’t a popular science review of pandemic interventions and response strategies. Although, if there is a Hollywood adaptation (like Lewis’ Moneyball) then there would be parts for Selena Gomez to reprise her role in explaining dense public health theories and concepts. There’s an extended section which compares 1918 influenza pandemic interventions in Philadelphia and St Louis and supporting evidence which indicates “cities that intervened immediately experienced less disease and death” and further that cities which “caved to pressure from businesses to relax social distancing then experienced a more severe second wave.” 

Lewis also presents research that concludes that you “couldn’t design a better system for transmitting disease than the school system,” which got me thinking about perceptions, and why there is a persistent view that closing schools is a bad idea? Surely it’s only a bad idea if it is done badly?

The book notes how we are notoriously bad at understanding statistics and complex dynamics. Exponential growth is hard for us to visualise beyond the first few steps. Lewis provides an example of folding a piece of paper 50 times being able to reach a distance of 70 million miles. It just doesn’t seem right.

What comes through most clearly is that more often than not this doesn’t come down to expertise or evidence. Success often is the result of people who work around the system. Individuals with passion projects that compensate for the failings and deficiencies of their organisations.

My own passion project has been to try and better surface and understand interdependencies between different systems. It’s easy to become a specialist in your own field, but to see how that connects and relates to other areas is less common. My Anytown project started off as a way to try and convey the ‘whole society’ impact of various scenarios. The Premonition covers some of this in a short section that identifies the pressures on the production of nasal swabs which are only manufactured in three locations worldwide and are in extreme demand during a pandemic.

However, Lewis also makes the observation that decisions can no longer be made purely on the basis of technical evidence and draws the book to a conclusion noting that “greater attention needs to be paid to how decisions might appear to a cynical public.”

There are some wild claims throughout, such as “The US invented pandemic planning in 2005”, which I’m not sure would stand up to much scrutiny. And I’m sure that trying to tell a history of COVID whilst we are all still living through COVID means there is more to be uncovered. But overall, The Premonition is an easy to read yet insightful book which casts light on, more often than not, the failings of government-level risk management and the commitment and passion of public health and emergency management professionals, noting that some are “so committed it’s more of a mission than a job.” 


Next on my reading list: Catastrophe and Systemic Change by Gill Kernick