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UK blackout preparedness in question

The unusually mild winter might save us this time around but blackouts are now a greater risk than at any time in recent history.

Decades of under investment and political infighting have taken its toll on the ability for the UK to support itself in its energy needs as a developed nation.

That predicament alone is a damning indictment of recent government administrations but a new report, undertaken by DECC, suggests worse than the inconvenience of a blackout itself will be the catalytic and prolonged impact on the health of the nation.

The Daily Telegraph gained access to documents detailing the findings under the assessment known as ‘Exercise Hopkinson’. The report found that contingency plans for power cuts were seriously flawed or non-existent and were based on unproven and questionable assumptions.

Exercise Hopkinson took place in Summer 2014 following 12 months of preparation and involved all key government departments as well as representatives from major industries and was intended to establish whether the capabilities under emergency powers were fit for purpose.

They weren’t.

The exercise was focused on the South West and the impact of a severe weather event taking out energy supplies for 2 million homes for 2 weeks.

The report concluded that the assessment:

“Exposed the fact that, where contingency plans against power disruption exist, some of those plans are based on assumption rather than established fact.

“Populations are far less resilient now than they once were. There is likely to be a very rapid descent into public disorder unless Government can maintain [the] perception of security.”

But the report also concluded that such a response might be too late:

“[Arriving] after the local emergency resources and critical utility contingency measures had already been consumed”.

Perhaps most damningly the report concluded that:

“False assumptions & new considerations were identified by all involved”

These new considerations involved some issues that would be laughable if they were not so serious including backup fuel supplies becoming “ever more vital in the absence of power, to run generators and emergency response vehicles” but that this capability may be fundamentally undermined due to their reliance on electric pumps to operate!

Or the fact that hospitals have no idea how long their backup generation would last.

Or “Signals failure on the rail network will shut down all movement in the region” and street lighting and road signals will fail, significantly increasing the risk of accident and congestion.

Or the fact that mobile networks would predictably fail after a couple of hours but also that many landline capabilities would be equally compromised as so many phones now rely on an electricity connection to connect.

Or the risk that the electronic tags used to monitor criminals would fail causing “genuine risk that high risk offenders in the community would be able to disappear”.

Even the incarceration of those not reliant on electronic tags will be compromised as prisons will see a decrease in staffing levels, as will all walks of life, as individuals focus on protection of their family over their employment.

Indeed the exercise assumed that “a critical mass of staff remain available” when in reality the number is likely to be far lower.

DECC commented on the report and the outcomes of Exercise Hopkinson saying:

“The Government routinely carries out exercises like this to test response capabilities and ensure we are as prepared as possible for any very high impact emergency situation. The scenario tested here was and continues to be, unlikely to happen, but it is important we do these exercises and learn from them.”

However a source told the Telegraph that:

“The short synopsis is: we’re unprepared. If they ran this every year you wouldn’t expect them to have identified so many gaps in their knowledge and preparation.

“It seems like a lot of emergency planning is based on articles of faith. These are incredibly unlikely scenarios but you want to trust the unseen hand of the state to sort things out if the worst does happen. It looks as though the manifestations of the state aren’t sure how they would respond.”

Whilst the suggestion that a prolonged blackout is “incredibly unlikely” will be met by scorn given the current capacity constraints facing the UK energy market, there undoubtedly exist a total failure in the country’s ability to withstand any such instance.

Whilst the mechanics of the system are expected to fail, the frailty of the modern citizen in being able to cope and readjust to disruption is of equal concern with civil disorder and panic buying a significant risk.

Whilst nobody knows exactly how he or she will react in such an environment the risk of us finding out is increasing as the capacity margin continues to shrink and one bad winter in 20 stands between us and a modern day apocalypse according to Exercise Hopkinson.

Happy New Year?