Covid-19 – Planning for Crises

by ukcivilservant

Matt Hancock’s signature at 0650 on Monday morning gave the police and health officials the power to detain and question anyone suspected of carrying the Covid-19 coronavirus.

This blog explains how Health Department, Public Health England and NHS officials will have prepared for the current crisis.

Source material includes the Understanding the Civil Service web page on Planning for Crises plus my reading of the relevant health protection legislation.  I would be very pleased to hear from anyone who can help me correct or add to this material.


Civil Servants who may need to help Ministers respond to crises should follow this advice:

 1.  Ask whether you have the necessary powers

Make sure you have the statutory powers – and discretionary powers – necessary to respond to any plausible crisis.

  • Legislation will provide strong guidance but – as an American Judge opined – “The constitution is not a suicide pact”.
  • I understand that the UK authorities did not initially have the powers necessary to resolve the run on Northern Rock.

Such powers should be subject to appropriate political oversight.

  • Internal response planning discussions, including with Ministers, should not be disclosed unless/until their existence will not cause damage.

HMG can if necessary (and with Parliamentary approval) legislate very quickly.  It also has powers, in the Civil Contingencies Act and other legislation, to act ahead of Parliamentary approval.

Internationally, the UN Security Council can act including by giving strong powers to an international authority under Chapter 7 of the UN Treaty.


The necessary legislation appears to have been in place and was triggered as soon as it appeared that someone might refuse to remain in quarantine.

  • The key legislation is in Part 2A of The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.
  • The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 were made under the above Act and signed by the Health Secretary at 0650 on Monday 10 February 2020.
  • In combination, this legislation confers very great powers on doctors, the police, local authorities and magistrates.
  • In particular it empowers a constable to use reasonable force to detain anyone whom they suspect might be infected.
  • And the Secretary of State or a registered public health consultant may require screening and isolation of suspected carriers, and can require them to answer questions, provide documents etc.
  • Magistrates may require seizure, disinfection quarantining etc. of ‘things’ and premises.

Note, though, this UK Human Rights Blog (and pun):  Corona-vires: Has the Government exceeded its powers?

2.  Plan and Prepare for Possible Crises

Officials should practice (‘game’) responding to crises.  They should:-

  • assume that the crisis will hit when your organisation is in some ways unprepared, for reasons outside its control.
  • assume in particular that key team members and decision makers will not be available.
  • prepare public responses to foreseeable damage caused by your organisation.
  • not let lawyer-driven responses – seeking to downplay legal liability – cause large reputational damage.

No plan will survive contact with reality but if there is no plan then reality will take over with disastrous consequences.

Get your most sceptical staff to check, from time to time, that the detail of the crisis management plan is up-to-date, sensible and appropriate.

  • In the US, following Hurricane Katrina, mandatory evacuation led to all vehicles leaving New Orleans well in advance of the plan’s deadline.  Unfortunately the plan made no mention of the need to evacuate those residents who did not have vehicles within a similar timescale.

In the UK, there is some concern that the effectiveness of the response to any energy supply crisis would depend too much on the cooperation of the private sector.

3.  Plan your Communications with the Public

The senior person (ideally only one person) who takes responsibility for telling the public what is happening should aim to demonstrate calmness, confidence, trustworthiness and competence.

  • 90% of the information reaching the crisis management team will initially be wrong, so don’t go into detail.
  • The media are an important intermediary in communicating with the public in times of emergency. They need to be respected.
  • A (not otherwise well known) expert is often best, such as the Chief Veterinary or Medical Officer.
  • In general, it is probably best if the spokesperson is not a politician, given public distrust of that species, and the possibility that they will not listen to communications advice.

An example of bad communication was when – at a time of possible fuel shortages – a UK politician encouraging the public to horde petrol in jerry cans kept in garages.  This is because hording should not be encouraged in these circumstances, not everyone has a garage, and petrol is highly flammable.

4.  Plan the Management of the Crisis

One person should be given clear cross-Whitehall responsibility for leading the response to the crisis.

That person should confine him/herself to taking strategic decisions.  Tactical decision making should be left to those on the ground.

Responses should as far as possible consider unintended consequences.

Measures that might be seem attractive so as to ensure public safety/security do not necessarily have priority over consequences including damage to human rights …

…  nor do they always trump economic damage.

  • The US emergency response to security threats required all borders to be closed.  This severely damaged companies operating supply chains over the Canadian border.


Most of the above points were made at a 2019 Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation (LSE) seminar about crisis-handling and emergencies.  Seminar participants made the following points by way of background to the discussion:

There was quite a strong feeling that we are living through a difficult and dangerous period:-

  • There is undeclared asymmetric warfare. In other words, the strategies and/or o tactics of the respective combatants are significantly different from each other).
  • Cyber warfare is particularly problematic in what is becoming a post-factual age.
  • There are disturbing domestic political developments in many countries, fuelled in part by distrust of elites and governments.
  • International bodies are relatively weak.
  • We in the UK are neglecting and under-resourcing our public health, justice etc. systems.

Further Reading

More detailed advice on handling risks to health and safety, including communications advice, may be found here.

Martin Stanley  –  Editor:
Understanding Government
Understanding the UK Civil Service
Understanding Policy Making
Understanding Regulation 

Twitter:-  @ukcivilservant