By Matthew Kilgour
What are the difficulties encountered when planning for and responding to natural disasters and adverse weather conditions in the UK? This was the topic of discussion at the FPH Annual Conference session on Wednesday 7 July, featuring contributions from Lucy Reynolds from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Wayne Elliott, Head of the Health Programme at the Met Office, Shona Arora, NHS Director of Public Health for Gloucestershire, and Andy Wapling, NHS Head of Emergency Response for London.
The three key environmental factors affecting UK emergency planning and response were outlined as excessive cold, heat and flooding. All the speakers were keen to point out that the implications of these factors stretch beyond immediate and physical dangers, and stressed the need to understand the social and mental health implications of events like floods or heatwaves. Andrew Wapling, discussed the need to conflate the public health and emergency response agendas saying, “the quicker an effective response is mounted, the lesser the impact on individuals.“ He cited early response to disasters as a key determinant in minimising longer-term implications. He also stressed the need to identify critical infrastructure and the events that could potentially ground services and impede response.
Shona Arora discussed her involvement with the response to 2007’s flooding in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. The flooding heavily disrupted day-to-day patterns of life, and vulnerable individuals and groups like the poor, the elderly or those with learning difficulties did not, in many cases, have access to the information or resources to protect themselves. Lucy Renolds stressed this same issue in her closing remarks by saying, “it is always the poorest communities who are affected the worst”. Large percentages of individuals affected by the flooding did not have sufficient insurance, and many were left without access to serviceable kitchens. Ms Arora admitted that the evidence base for pre-empting eventualities like these was thin, and placed emphasis on the need to address this factor.
Lucy Reynolds highlighted the key role that mass media can play in information sharing and raising public awareness in response to disasters. She stressed the need for reliable communications networks when dealing with disaster relief, as public phone network can become overloaded and unreliable. The need for effective and reliable communication between departments was emphasised repeatedly throughout the session. Wayne Elliott from the Met Office said that “unless you communicate at the right time, and in the right manner, nothing will get done.”