FIRE’s Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett asks how we step back from a situation where we are too vulnerable to events that can overwhelm our society
With the economic cost of Covid-19 rising dramatically it is quite understandable the focus has moved from containing the virus to how the country learns to live with it. One simple fact helps. Society has learnt to live with seasonal flu for decades. Each year older people go for their flu injections. While this is not guaranteed to protect them from the latest variation of seasonal flu it is a scientifically based attempt to guess the next most likely evolution.
By doing this the government gives some degree of immunity to one part of the wider community of people we consider to be the most vulnerable in society. This simple act for which filling in the paperwork takes longer than receiving the inoculation, provides a degree of resilience to society. In the winter of 2018 it was highly successful, with deaths from seasonal flu close to 2,000 people. In 2015 it was less so with over 20,000 dead.
The ‘flu jab’ and its accompanying messaging from the authorities are now a part of the annual rhythms in society. By having it people become more resilient to the next wave of flu and society becomes more able to withstand whatever mutation arrives from around the world.
That another mutation will arrive is now taken for granted. Perhaps, as a lasting legacy of the experiences with Covid-19, society may just appreciate simple things. In our previously busy lives giving time for the flu jab may have considered to be low priority; by doing so a risk is taken that an individual places themselves at risk. The simple hygienic act of hand washing may also become something that is now embedded into the daily routines of society.
By learning lessons in trying to avoid the horrors of being hospitalised by Covid-19 – associated with the truly frightening statistics of survival rates splashed as headlines in the media – society gradually becomes more resilient.
But this is a slow process. It is also a situation where marginal gains can rapidly evaporate. People can easily get back to some degree of normality and forget the scenes emerging on social media of people dying with shortness of breath and think they are somehow immune again.
Perhaps, ironically, one side effect from a successful search for a vaccine will be a sense of immunity that will cause people to become complacent. This is not a route to creating a more resilient society. The emergence of a vaccine for Covid-19 is just that: a solution to the immediate problem. It is not a panacea for all the likely future viruses that exist in reservoirs in nature that may make the crossing from the animal kingdom into humans.
As with historical events, like Spanish flu, the seasonal flu outbreak in 1957, and more recent examples of the rapid transmission of diseases like Ebola, society must develop a much deeper understanding of what it means to be resilient. The growing impotency of antibiotics against new strains of germs provides another example of what the next major problem might yet be that society has to face. The warnings about these trends have long been in the public domain.
At this moment in time, as society starts to move out of lockdown, it is vital that the lessons that need to be learnt be documented and processes put in place to ensure that the next time something develops society is ready. Political leaders who suggest that now is not the time to learn those lessons are wrong. This is absolutely the time to draw out the lessons.
While they worry about their approval ratings and think that by deferring the political pain of seeing their mistakes writ-large across the media, their instincts and motivations are wrong. Society has got the message that this is an unparalleled event, the preparation for which would have been difficult for any political ideology. There will be a lot more forgiveness in society for a political leader that puts their hands up now and says ‘I have learnt these lessons’ than one who seeks to move into the proverbial long-grass.
“As part of the Resilience Charter any exercise conducted with a training objective that relates to an element of societal resilience should be mandated”
This is why we at FIRE magazine are working so hard to develop the Resilience Charter. By being more resilient as a society we also make better use of our resources when things do go wrong. For all the emergency services, a resilient society is one that means other priorities, for example developing better cancer treatments, helping the elderly live fuller and more meaningful lives, or tackling the scourge of dementia, can be a focus. Why should we run our society on the edge of resilience? In an increasingly interconnected world, where surprises lurk around many dark corners, standing on the edge of a cliff face, above a significant fall, with a strong wind swirling around, is perhaps not a great strategy. Oblivion awaits those who make one wrong step.
It should be taken for granted that forging resilient societies requires its institutions to be flexible. Dogma, be it politically motivated or sources from history, is never a good place to start. One lessons to emerge from Covid-19 is that any public institution that shows it cannot be flexible needs to be challenged.
Take the Fire and Rescue Service. Its contribution to dealing with Covid-19 has seen them flex into new areas of service provision. While it is fair to say the first steps along that road were somewhat hesitant, once local initiatives started the Fire and Rescue Service has also stepped up to the challenges posed by Covid-19.
This shows that an organisation steeped in the history of putting out fires and saving lives has been able to adapt when it really became necessary. This provides an important principle for a resilient society. Emergency services must see themselves not as individual parts of a resilient society, but as part of a highly integrated and unified capability where the boundaries between each service are less distinct. Fire and rescue personnel with first aid skills are an essential element of that vision.
Building a Resilient Society
A resilient society, of the form we envisage being underpinned by the Resilience Charter we advocate, is one that can be flexible when the next challenge strikes. It must also understand that where that next challenge emerges from cannot easily be pre-scripted.
Whilst the Cabinet Office Risk Register is a good basis for documenting contemporary threats, local resilience forums should be mandated, as part of their reasons for existing, to conduct exercises that explore all the range of threats. Not those that simply are obvious at this moment in time. It is essential to think outside the box.
When such exercises are conducted, they need to be led by people with a genuine understanding of the ways in which that threat can impact society. Exercises that only tap the superficial are a waste of time. Second and third order effects need to be brought to the surface. It is in these individual and sometimes randomly combined sub-texts where the real challenges will emerge.
As part of the Resilience Charter any exercise conducted with a training objective that relates to an element of societal resilience should be mandated and given the resources to employ skilled facilitators that can really dive deep into the problem.
In what should also be an advisory notice to those participating in resilience exercises, a structure for their conduct should be laid out. An introduction from the leader of the exercise should precede a talk by an authority in the field. This sets the context for the day. The secretariat of the forum should also then deliver a resume of key generic lessons from past exercises. An aid memoire covering past lessons should be handed out to all attendees of the exercise. This will help shape the corporate memory across those attending the event.
Once the exercise starts an initial baseline story should be handed to each of the participants. They should be given time to read and absorb this and ask questions of the facilitator. Once that stage is completed the first of a series of injects should occur. These gradually build on the story and take the participants on a journey where they make decisions, for example concerning the allocation of resources.
In the exercise, proper attention should be given to timings. If resources are allocated, how long is it realistically before they arrive at their intended deployment location? What are the issues with duty time? Realism from these viewpoints is essential to ensuring the lessons that emerge are worthwhile and help to contribute to the creation of a more resilient society.
At the end of each exercise another point will be to spend an hour on a detailed wrap-up session. Questions such as what have we learnt from past exercises that are germane to the outcomes from this event? What are the generic lessons that we need to learn?
One of those will inevitably be how to manage the news cycles and associated fake news stories appearing in the ill-informed mainstream media. The government’s response to Covid-19 provides an interesting case study from which to build. Not all of its messages or narrative have been coherent. This is typical of a crisis and needs to be a core part of any curriculum associated with an exercise.
As the United Kingdom moves out of lockdown into what the government is calling the next stage of the pandemic, it is vital that society as a whole learns these lessons quickly. Political attempts at delay need to be ignored. The priority having been through Covid-19 is to create a new a resilient society.
Part of that process will be to generate the kind of Resilience Charter that this publication advocates. It will help society as a whole step back from the cliff edge of resilience to an operating environment where shocks that should be expected create the kind of once in a generation catastrophe for the economy that will take years to overcome.