Bike in flood

Why does Britain need a National Risk Register (NRR)? To understand what the risks are and how to improve resilience, explains John Tesh, the Cabinet Office official responsible for the NRR and Fellow of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy.

This is not a particularly disaster-prone country when compared with other countries. After the Cold War, the British approach to what seemed like a rather modest risk landscape emphasised improvisation. Until, that is, the 2000 and 2001 emergencies – foot and mouth disease, fuel strike, flooding – and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which suggested that ‘muddling through’ would no longer do. The government had to show that it understood what the risks were and how best to organise to improve resilience.

Which is why, since 2004, British governments have based planning for domestic emergencies on a national risk assessment that ranks the risks according to likelihood and impact. First published in 2008, the NRR was updated in 2010 and 2012. Risk management approaches are increasingly being used to plan for events – for the Olympic Games as an example – and for national security in general.

A risk management strategy provides the best approach to making informed decisions on the necessary investments in resilience. It enables us to avoid attempting to predict future shocks in an inherently unpredictable risk landscape. Risks can be prioritised, and the highest risks identified – currently, pandemics, coastal flooding, mass killings by terrorists and gas-rich volcanic eruptions – to enable special programmes of mitigation to reduce vulnerabilities to such risks by preventing, preparing for, responding to and recovering from them.

Strategies can be devised for managing the general run of risks, preferably at a local level, and to communicate information on the risks and their likely impacts for which people can plan.

In a time of unprecedented resource constraint, it is essential to be able to prioritise planning to make sure that help goes where it can do the most good. Identifying and planning for the common consequences of risks, irrespective of source, also helps prevent wasteful duplication and can aid business continuity and recovery.

The NRR is common-sense risk assessment, based on legislation – the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act – which defines an ‘emergency’ as an event that threatens significant harm to human welfare measurable not only in terms of health and safety, but also in the maintenance of essential supplies of fuel, food, water, transport, cash and energy supplies.

It can aid business continuity and recovery in the national infrastructure sectors providing those services, as much as in the communities and local businesses that are often the real front line in emergencies.

Looking ahead, the mainstream assumption must be that Britain’s risk profile will be diverse, as now, with no single risk dominating, and complex and unpredictable, with links suddenly and apparently randomly emerging between events. Some of this may be due to cyclical factors. The trend in all areas of risk does not have to be up. But climate change impacts will have an increased bearing, and most of the risks are exacerbated by the increasingly networked nature of our society as much as by the hazards themselves.

If having clear objectives has been the secret to effective risk management strategy in the past few years, the key for the future will be a balanced collaboration between science and policy. This was the main finding of the House of Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology in its work on the use of science for emergency planning and crisis management. We are taking this seriously: the national risk assessment process includes reinforced mechanisms for independent cross-disciplinary scientific advice.

University of Cambridge scientists are already working on some of the risks that pose the greatest challenge for risk assessment, where particular uncertainties attach to calculations of probability or impact or both… and where significant investment in resilience of national infrastructure and public safety hangs in part on getting the answer right, or at least good enough for government work.

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