Planning for Crises

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

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

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. 

Such powers should be subject to appropriate political oversight.

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.

2.  Plan and Prepare for Possible Crises

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

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.

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. 

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. 


Most of the above points were made at a 2019 seminar about crisis-handling.  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:-

Further Reading

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


Martin Stanley


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