Science in emergencies: chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents Contents

2National mechanisms for science advice during CBRN and Hazmat incidents

Emergency Coordination of Scientific Advice (ECOSA)

12.Our attention was drawn to three main agencies providing science advice:

The Home Office told us that together these three agencies form ‘ECOSA’—the Emergency Coordination of Scientific Advice23—a mechanism that can be triggered through a telephone call to the National CBRN Centre.24 ECOSA takes the form of a teleconference between DSTL, AWE and PHE personnel with relevant expertise,25 and aims to provide the necessary scientific advice during the earliest stages of the response to an incident.

13.Dr Nick Gent from PHE told us that the ECOSA mechanism had been developed following recognition that there was a need to fill a “gap in providing science services to firstline responders” which previously existed between an incident taking place and other more formal scientific advisory systems being set up.26 In 2016 a Public Health England review of processes for scientific advice delivery to first responders had led to a “relaunch” of ECOSA,27 although we heard that in practice this was more of a formalisation of the existing process.28

14.The ECOSA mechanism also exists to ensure that responders do not receive conflicting advice from different sources. Dr Cerys Rees from DSTL explained that, without ECOSA, “the danger is that [PHE] may give different answers from a health perspective from the ones that perhaps [AWE] and DSTL would give from a scientific perspective. It is about making sure that we do not give slightly different advice for different reasons and making sure that we have coordinated and given the correct information, as one”.29 Dr Gent described the work of ECOSA as a “bridging first response, augmenting first response and making sure that the national and local definitive services start with good briefings and clean handovers”.30

15.We learned that ECOSA exists only until a Scientific and Technical Advice Cell (STAC) can be established for the incident,31 which comprises local bodies involved in responding to the incident and national experts who can continue to provide advice. At this point, ECOSA is stood down, and a handover procedure is followed to brief the STAC.32 Dr Gent described how science advice is provided by different groups during the early stages of a response to a CBRN incident and the timescales involved:

If we imagine a timeline from an incident occurring, we have the first responders being deployed to an incident, and they then use the training they are given in the response. There is a lot of operational response guidance and training given to them, but it is an automatic response. If they recognise that there is something outwith their training and understanding, they can then call off, using conventional telephone systems or any other communication systems, science advice […] The first scientific adviser and senior medical adviser would be online to those first responders within minutes. The whole coordinated group of science adviser services that cover all three agencies [i.e. ECOSA] comes together in the next 10 to 20 minutes, and that bridges the gap until the formal advisory structures that sit in rooms and provide facetoface advice come together in the one, two or three hours after that.33

16.We asked representatives of the constituent parts of ECOSA how this mechanism compared to those in other countries. Dr Gent (PHE) told us that the degree of integration between the ECOSA bodies and with law enforcement services was “quite remarkable and unusual”.34 Similarly, Dr Rees (DSTL) told us that:

The thing that works well in the UK is that all the organisations involved are relatively small and are able to communicate with each other on a regular enough basis that the advice is coherent. There are also only three agencies involved. The complication in some other countries may be that there is such a vast number of agencies involved in responding to different types of incidents that it can be very difficult to ensure coherence. Certainly, from the US perspective, the US looks at the UK as a really joinedup response, mainly because we are so small and there is one agency for each type of response.35

The need to work across national borders

17.Our attention was also drawn to the importance of ensuring that national borders within the UK do not impede the provision of science advice in emergencies. The ECOSA mechanism includes Public Health England (PHE) but not its equivalents in other nations. This means it is incumbent on PHE to ensure that suitable connections are made with other health bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

18.Dr Gent confirmed that ECOSA would still be triggered if the incident was located in Scotland, for example,36 and explained that:

We promise to provide the same service that we provide anywhere in the UK if an emergency service in Scotland asks for it, but we would also make sure that we called our equivalent colleagues in Scotland to make sure that, where they wished to take the lead and where they wanted support from us, it was given. They take the responsibility for saying what they want from what we can offer, but we make that available and there are no issues, boundaries or borders around that. We just say we are there and available: “How can we help?”37

We probed this further with representatives of Health Protection Scotland during our visit to Glasgow, where we heard that coordination with PHE was working well, and that the creation of a Scotland-specific form of ECOSA would risk disrupting coordination of advice (see Annex).


19.Thankfully, the UK has not yet experienced an event of the nature that would require an ECOSA response.38 However, Dr Gent explained that “probably two or three times every quarter” the three ECOSA agencies will undertake some coordination of activity in order to respond to a request for advice,39 and individual agencies provided advice frequently. Dr Rees told us that DSTL was called upon for advice “on a weekly basis”.40

20.The ECOSA bodies participate in exercises organised by the Home Office and the police.41 However, Andy Bell from the Chief Fire Officers’ Association told us that the process for accessing science advice was “not as well tested as it should be”, and that “we should focus a little bit more, when we are doing these types of exercises, on testing the scientific advice”.42

21.ECOSA is a relatively new mechanism that has not yet had to react to an emergency. We recommend that future exercises and practice scenarios for CBRN and Hazmat incidents include ‘live’ unscheduled drills which test the speed and effectiveness of the provision of science advice at all levels and stages of the response, including ECOSA. Scenarios should also test how these mechanisms would function during emergencies that cross national borders within the UK.


22.The Home Office explained that, according to the nature of the situation, ECOSA may “morph” into Scientific and Technical Advice Cells (STACs), and that these can subsequently provide expertise for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), if it has also been activated.43 The distinction between these groups, drawn by the Home Office, was that ECOSA provides immediate advice to responders, while STAC provides “wider advice on consequence management” and SAGE provides national level advice to the Cabinet Office emergency committee (known as ‘COBR’ or ‘Cobra’, with the Scottish Government Resilience Room (SGoRR) as the equivalent in Scotland).44

23.Dr Gent from Public Health England described how ECOSA, STACs and SAGE would interact in an emergency and their different areas of focus:

The SAGE group is the principal group, usually chaired by the Government Chief Scientist or the Chief Medical Officer, that advises the ministerial meetings or senior officials meetings sitting in the Cabinet Office briefing rooms—the Cobra mechanism—about the science picture. They do a certain degree of peer review of the science technology adviser system that operates at local level, and they also have a role in dealing with areas of science where there may be a degree of uncertainty. The local systems will deal with the knowledge, the bestknown science and the best already promulgated advice about how to manage things, but when things start to be unusual, the SAGE group is a higher level in terms of strategic management but they can also call on science resources that are unique and unusual, and coordinate those nationally. [ … ] A good example of where SAGE would have come in would have been, for instance, around the time of Fukushima where we were dealing with complex questions about exposure, pathways of exposure, risks in the food chain, what is a tolerable degree of risk and that kind of thing, whereas a STAC group might meet around, for instance, a fire at a local chemical factory where the chemicals are very well defined.45

Ensuring clarity for local resilience forums

24.Reflecting the distinction between CBRN and Hazmat, which we discussed in Chapter 1, we encountered some confusion about whether ECOSA was activated only as a response to malicious CBRN incidents or whether it could be called upon during a Hazmat emergency (or, indeed, if an equivalent mechanism existed for non-terrorist scenarios). A Home Office leaflet from September 2013 describes the role of ECOSA in terms of “malicious” CBRN incidents and “CBRN terrorist incidents”.46 Christopher Abbott from the Emergency Planning Society said that “DSTL and AWE very much focus on scientific advice around CBRN terrorism and the use of CBRN materials in that sort of way, because that is what their business is about”.47 This was confirmed by Simon Earwicker from DSTL.48 However DSTL later added that in practice it was “unlikely that ECOSA would refuse to respond” to a Hazmat incident if the ECOSA organisations “had the necessary expertise to assist”.49

25.We were also told that the ECOSA service was “not well advertised” and is not referred to in the Government’s guidance on emergency preparedness,50 the Cabinet Office’s Emergency Response and Recovery guidance,51 or the Lexicon in which CBRN is defined52—presumably as a result of these documents not having been updated since the relaunch of ECOSA (paragraph 13). A basic search of the website for ‘ECOSA’ currently produces no results.

26.James Webster from the Staffordshire Civil Contingencies Unit suggested that, from the perspective of a local resilience forum, “It would be helpful to have a road map that sets out what information is available on a national level, how we go about accessing it and where we get it in an emergency”.53 He suggested that

It would make our life easier if it was effectively a one-stop shop. If, as a local planner doing our CBRN and Hazmat plan, we can go to a single agency that has all the suites of guidance documents, sits across government and has all the specialists and everything in one place, we can say, “We have this particular chemical. What do we do?” If we are planning for a chemical site that has just come online, we can say, “What do we do with this?” or “We have a biological risk. Where do we go?” If it is one place, it makes our life much easier and more efficient.54

The Staffordshire Civil Contingencies Unit suggested that “the use of a single repository for advice and guidance would allow responders to access this information in one place, wherever it was produced”.55 They pointed us towards Resilience Direct56—a secure Cabinet Office website that provides document storage and information for the resilience community—as a possible home for this.57

27.It is important that local resilience forums are clear about what scientific support is available to them to support planning and response to CBRN and Hazmat incidents, including how that might be different for each type of emergency. The Government should investigate whether there is sufficient clarity amongst all LRFs and how this could be improved—such as by assembling all of the relevant information in the Resilience Direct secure website. In particular, the Government should clarify whether the ECOSA mechanism should only be used for scenarios with suspected malicious intent (and consequently what routes are available for securing advice in relation to Hazmat incidents), or whether the service can be used more generally.

Box 1: Case study: the Fukushima SAGE

Several witnesses drew on the example of the UK’s response to the Fukushima incident in 2011 to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the SAGE mechanism in the context of the release of CBRN materials (although under the current definitions the Fukushima disaster is not considered to be a CBRN incident).

On 11 March 2011 an earthquake struck the east coast of Japan. The earthquake, and the associated tsunami, resulted in a loss of electrical power and cooling function at the three operating reactor units at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Despite the efforts of operators at the plant to maintain control, three reactor cores overheated, and radionuclides were released from the plant to the atmosphere and the sea.58 In the UK, a SAGE was established to provide advice to the Government on the safety of British nationals in the area and how the radioactive material was expected to spread. A summary of the incident on the Government’s website explains that:

SAGE came to a unanimous view that, given the fuel held at Fukushima, there was no need for UK nationals to evacuate areas outside the exclusion zone recommended by the Japanese Government. This advice was felt to be appropriate even in a reasonable worst case scenario. Modelling results indicated that outside the exclusion zone, even in this worst case, the risk to human health could be managed by precautionary measures, such as staying indoors to avoid exposure, iodine tablets would also be helpful, notably for infants and pregnant women. The Government put in place precautionary advice to leave an area within 80 km of the plant on 17 March and SAGE were content at this additional level of precaution.59

Dr Gent of Public Health England explained how a range of bodies provided scientific input to the Fukushima SAGE, covering contamination, dispersal and health risk:

The principal scientific advice about the risk to British nationals in Japan, and more widely through foodstuffs and transmission through transport systems, was given by the Atomic Weapons Establishment and Public Health England. The Atomic Weapons Establishment and the Office for Nuclear Regulation could obtain information about the materials that had been released. Using the Met Office and others we could get dispersal patterns, so I was getting predictions about what materials would be deposited that people would be exposed to. My scientists in Public Health England were turning that into exposure information as to what degree of radiation exposure British nationals were getting in, say, Tokyo, or whatever, and what the contamination routes were into food and foodstuffs. We were turning that into human risk, and also into human messaging so that we could advise people in Japan and people who had an interest or were travelling to and from Japan what that meant to them in terms of hazards to their health.60

He told us that the same processes would operate if a similar incident were to take place in this country, and that exercises are undertaken to test this at a range of levels.61Dr Dame Sue Ion, Chair of the Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board and a member of the SAGE set up for the disaster, recalled that:

At that time all the right people were drawn in very quickly from our National Nuclear Lab, our regulator, the ONR, the Health Protection Agency, as it was then, the Met Office and known key individual experts and UK academics like Robin Grimes, who subsequently became [Chief Scientific Adviser to the] Foreign Office, and Professor Andrew Sherry. The right experts were all drawn together to enable the advice to be discussed with the [Government] Chief Scientific adviser—at the time Sir John Beddington—and passed onward to COBRA.62

Dame Sue summarised the impact of SAGE’s work for the Fukushima disaster:

Our Prime Minister was able to give advice to the embassy in Japan not to evacuate anybody from Japan who was a UK national. Our ambassador stood in front of Japanese television and said he was staying put and so was his family, because it was safe to do so. That was a huge thing. Some other nations did not take the scientific advice they were given, and evacuated, although the scientific advice, whether it was in France, the United States or here, was common; it was that there was no need to evacuate.63

Dr Edward Sykes of the Science Media Centre highlighted the “Fukushima bounce” observed in the UK after the incident—an increase in support for nuclear power in this country, in contrast to other countries where support was diminishing “because the media were getting even less evidence into their stories and the public were being misinformed”.64 However, Dr Sykes also complained that “there was not as much information coming out from Government Departments as we would have hoped, and hopefully that is something we can learn from”.65 This issue is explored further in Chapter 4.

Dame Sue Ion argued that the work of the Fukushima SAGE showed the importance of long-term investment in “national capability”:

In the nuclear world, many of the subject-matter experts available for Fukushima had their genesis in research 20 or 30 years ago when we had much bigger national labs in that area, so one of the things we need to be careful about going forward is not to diminish that national capability so that you actually can have subject-matter experts.66

22 Home Office (CBR 17) para 50

23 Home Office (CBR 17) para 46

24 Q219

25 Q132 [Dr Rees]

26 Q105 [Dr Gent]

27 Home Office (CBR 17) table

28 Q113 [Gary Butler]

29 Q114

30 Q107

31 Q111

32 Q107 [Dr Gent]

33 Qq106–7

34 Q186

35 Q186

36 Q138

37 Q137

38 Q158 [Dr Rees]

39 Q154

40 Q157

41 Q120 [Simon Earwicker], Q155 [Dr Gent]

42 Q35

43 Home Office (CBR 17) para 46

44 Home Office (CBR 17) para 45

45 Qq108–9

47 Q9

48 Q146

49 DSTL (CBR 26)

50 Cabinet Office, ‘Emergency Preparedness, accessed 7 March 2017

51 Cabinet Office, Emergency Response and Recovery (29 October 2013)

52, ‘Emergency responder interoperability: lexicon, accessed 17 January 2017

53 Q7

54 Q20

55 Staffordshire Civil Contingencies Unit (CBR 21)

56 ‘Guidance: Resilient communications’, Cabinet Office, accessed 13 March 2017

57 Staffordshire Civil Contingencies Unit (CBR 30)

58 International Atomic Energy Agency, The Fukushima Daiichi Accident: Report by the Director General (August 2015)

59The role of science advice in planning and responding to a major emergency’, Government Office for Science website archived at 5 July 2013

60 Q151

61 Q152

62 Q74

63 Q97

64 Q93. See also Nuclear Industry Association (CBR 7) paras 8–10.

65 Q93

66 Q88

27 March 2017