Crisis Management

Natural disasters and other crises require rapid responses which involve making difficult judgements. Sir David Omand reminded Ministers that:

You are going to behave rather differently; the pace of decision-making is going to be much faster than you have been used to; the mechanics of your relationship with your officials are going to be rather different, and very importantly, you are going to have to take more decisions on less information than you have been used to. That last point means you have to stick your neck out ... it is about risk management.  You do the best you can, but it may or may not be the best decision at the time and you are not going to know that as you take it... You have to live with that and just get on. That is not how most policy-making process works.

Officials need to plan thoroughly for such events, and ensure that the necessary resources will available to mount an effective response.  They should 'prepare for the worst and hope for the best'. 

If and when a crisis occurs, it is vital that both Ministers and officials apply the lessons learned by those responding to previous crisis.  This is not a time to believe that 'you know better'.  Here, then, is detailed advice from those who have gone before.  It draws on a number of sources including Catherine Haddon's Political decision making in a crisis.

(The notes and examples were added to help illuminate the Government's response to the 2020 Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic.)

1.  Plan and Prepare for Possible Crises

Officials (and ministers) should practice (‘game’) responding to crises.  The Civil Contingencies Unit's mantra is 'Prepare for the worst and hope for the best'.

You should:-

It is hard to overstate the importance of practising responses to possible emergencies.  Voluntary reports to the US Aviation Safety Reporting System showed that 86% of flight crews handled 'textbook emergencies' well.  But only 7% of non-textbook emergencies were handled well.  93% of crews were overwhelmed by situations for which they had not prepared.  You can see very similar problems in departments' responses to problems which could have been foreseen if they had undertaken sensible emergency planning .  See also failure to learn.

They should also:

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 resilience or crisis management plan is up-to-date, sensible and appropriate.  Red teaming might be useful.

Beware the Prevention Paradox.  Activity and expenditure aimed at avoiding future disasters seldom generates political credit.  (Example:  Y2K).   But failing to act will eventually wreak much greater havoc. 


You can’t see everything coming.  You cannot stockpile in anticipation of every disaster.  But disaster planning must include building in some resilience.  Do not eliminate all slack and redundancy in key systems, nor in the emergency and armed services. 


2. Ask whether you have the necessary powers

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

Such powers should be subject to appropriate political oversight.  It is for ministers to judge when to go to Parliament but, if they are reluctant, you might need to gently encourage them.

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.

Serious crises are likely to require the government to take steps which would be unacceptable in normal times, such as restricting civil liberties, allowing police searches, and slaughtering animals.  These actions are much more likely to be accepted if the general public is already inclined to trust both ministers and officials to be doing the right thing and acting proportionately.  Advance planning, involving ministers - see further below, offers an opportunity to draw attention to this lesson.


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.
  • 11 months later, though, ministers had constructed a huge regulatory edifice following 65 revisions to the initial lockdown laws.  It is at least arguable that this was over-complicated.
  • The Johnson government did not have a great reputation for honesty and this probably meant that some of its responses to the pandemic were less effective than might otherwise have been the case.

3.  The Initial Response

It can be difficult to know how to react to a rapidly growing threat.  There is often no option that will not cause significant harm.  Epidemics, for instance, will kill people if you don't damage the economy by implementing a lockdown.   In general, though, the sooner you act, the less the harm..

There should be well-practised plans to help you cope with predictable emergencies, together with appropriate resources.  Even so – and more likely if not so – you may need to take strong action early in the crisis, when the threat appears small.  But you should nevertheless take the time – maybe just a few hours or a couple of days – to listen to experts, to discover, to organise, and to absorb what information and knowledge is available.  Then act decisively.

Ignore those that tell you not to ‘over-react’.  A significant proportion of the population and the media will continue to deny reality, even as things fall apart.  Psychologists call this normalcy bias.  A nice (fictional) example is here.

Others accept or acquiesce in the new reality far too easily. 

If your decisive reaction prevents the danger from happening then you will be accused of over-reacting etc. etc.  This is called the prevention paradox This is not a good reason to delay. 

Equally, we become more comfortable with risks as we get used to them.  We also get better at responding to familiar risks. So your initial response might in time become seen (quite wrongly) as over-protective.  Again, this is not a good reason to delay.  But it may been that less firm measures might be appropriate once the nature of the risks have become clearer.

There are some very useful ‘top tips’ for incident management at Annex A below.

4.  Then Organise …

One person should be given clear, full-time cross-Whitehall responsibility for leading the response to the crisis.   That person should confine him/herself to taking strategic decisions.  Other responsibilities should be clearly allocated.  Tactical decision making should be left to those on the ground.  

Individually, you are always secondary to the role you play.  If you have a role to play then it's important you play that role.  If you don't have a role to play, it's really important you don't get under the feet of people who do.

5.  … and Consult

Continue consulting, intensively, as you develop your strategies in response to the crisis.  Again, consultation need not be time consuming, but it should include all those who seem to have interesting things to say, and all those who might reasonably wish to be consulted.  This will greatly increase the chances that your strategies will be effective – and accepted by consultees, even if they had argued against them.  Modern communications, including social media, will allow you to summarise issues, suggest ways forward, and seek comments, against very tight timetables. 


Be sceptical about early research findings.

Try to identify and allow for 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.  Ministers – and if necessary Parliament – need to make these judgments and agree the necessary compromises.

6.  This is Not Politics as Normal

The public have a sort of unwritten psychological contract with those in power.  We expect that the police will treat us with respect.  We expect that the government will ensure access to impartial justice.  And we expect governments to tell us the truth, set politics aside and do everything in their power to protect us when crises occur.  Much follows from this:-

Don’t promise, unless you are near certain to be able to deliver.  And try to avoid announcing ‘targets’. 

Instead, explain what you are doing, and the extent to which you depend on others, and on technology being made to work.  

As noted above, it helps a lot if the government has established itself as generally trustworthy.

A blog about the psychological contract (by Gill Kernick and me) may be found here.


Be agile.  Learn.  Don’t Blame.  Admit errors, but make it clear that lessons have been learned. You won’t convince everyone, and your political opponents will criticise your ‘U-turns’, but most of the public will credit you for identifying things that are going wrong, and addressing them.


Lead by Example. Ministers and senior officials must comply with their own legislation, and follow their own guidelines, or else they will lose moral authority, and will encourage others to ignore the same rules.


Provide Accurate Information. Once reliable information becomes available it should be published in a form that allows it to be easily understood. It should not be presented in a way that appears particularly favourable to the Government.


Avoid gimmicks and jokey language. The public are unlikely to be in the mood to be entertained.


In short - Trust in government is a vital and precious resource.  Do not squander it!

7.  Communications

Identify – ideally only one person – who will take responsibility for telling the public what is happening.

In general, it is probably best if the spokesperson is not a minister, given public distrust of politicians, and given the possibility that they will not listen to communications advice.  Also, they will attract political questions which will impede clear communication of important messaging.

An (otherwise not well known) expert is often best, such as the Chief Veterinary or Medical Officer.


Ensure that your decisions, regulations and guidance can be easily communicated.  If not, there may be a problem with the policies. In particular, guidance must be consistent with legislation.


But do not simplify complex messages for specialist audiences.  Encourage and trust intermediaries to communicate as necessary to their readers and members.

Although you will wish to make full use of social media, the broadcast and print media are an important intermediary in communicating with the public in times of emergency.  They need to be assisted and respected.

Do not unveil longer term strategies without significant detail being in place.  You must be able to answer obvious questions. 


Prepare to be blamed.  The over-adversarial nature of UK politics cannot be totally wished away, so it should be handled as a formal risk to your plans – a risk that should be mitigated in an open way.

Do not promise regular press conferences.  The absence of worthwhile announcements soon leads to excessive spin, empty promises, repackaged repetitive statements, and consequential lack of trust  – plus wasted official and Ministerial time. 

See Annex B below for communications advice contained in the conclusions of the BSE Inquiry.

Further Reading

The IfG published its initial 'lessons learned' [from Covid] report in August 2020:-  Decision Making in a Crisis.

It followed it up with Responding to Shocks - 10 lessons for government in March 2021

It also published Science Advice in a Crisis.

Tim Harford has written a very interesting blog explaining Why we fail to prepare for disasters.

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

Annex A

Here are some very sensible Top Tips for Incident Management from Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency:-

Lead: if you are your organisation’s leader, you need to lead the response to a big incident. Don’t try and do the day job as well. The incident is the day job till it’s over. Be decisive: be prepared to take big decisions. In an incident the biggest risk is not taking a decision at all, or taking it too late. You will not have all the facts: decide anyway.

Move fast: Flick the switch early to put your organisation into incident mode. If you don’t get ahead of the curve you will never catch up. So over-resource at the start: people, kit, whatever. You can always scale back later. Establish your battle rhythm immediately – which meetings when with whom to do what – and clear roles and responsibilities.

Get on the ground: The absent are always wrong. Being present and visible at the scene of an incident is as important as what you do when you get there. So get yourself and your team to the scene as soon as possible.

Have a strategy: Be clear what your goals are and ensure everyone in your team knows. Be ready to adjust your strategy as the situation changes, because it will.

Win the air war: The media battle (the air war) is as much a part of the incident as your operational response (the ground war). You need to win both. So use the media: don’t shy away from it. Have a simple message and keep on saying it. Get the tone right: calm, authoritative, empathetic, commitment to do what’s needed. Accept the inevitability of critical reporting: it’s not personal. It will go away.

Manage upwards: We all have bosses. Tell them what you are doing and listen to what they want.

Stay well: Look after your staff’s wellbeing and your own. Ensure everyone is fed and watered and gets a break, including you. Tired people make bad decisions.

Be ready beforehand: Have an incident plan and practice beforehand. No plan will survive contact with reality, but it’s better than not having one. Time spent in preparation is never wasted: what you do in peacetime is reflected in how you perform during the incident.

Learn the lessons afterwards: It will never be perfect. But each time you do something right or wrong, you will learn valuable lessons for next time. Do a wash up afterwards, write down the main lessons and keep them handy. You will need them again.

Annex B

Here is an extract from the conclusions of the BSE Inquiry:


Martin Stanley

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