David Mackenzie: ‘Unready Scotland’ and the current emergency

“Overall, the findings of ‘Unready Scotland’ are disturbing. Indeed, one local authority, West Lothian, was actually unaware of the regular nuclear weapon convoy traffic through its area via the M9. Not one of the surveyed local authorities had made any effort to inform their public of this particular threat to community safety.”

David Mackenzie, assistant secretary of Scottish CND and a member of the Nukewatch network, argues that the ongoing pandemic has highlighted Scotland’s lack of preparation for a civil emergency

In 2017 Nukewatch UK published ‘Unready Scotland’, its report on the preparedness or otherwise of the Scottish civil authorities for dealing with a serious accident involving the transport of nuclear weapons on public roads. In the current crisis that report has acquired an additional relevance.

Nuclear weapon convoys continue to travel on our roads, with their unique and dangerous payload of high explosive and plutonium, so the report remains chillingly pertinent to its core focus. After much dogged pressure from Nukewatch, the good work of MSPs Mark Ruskell and Bill Kidd – and a parliamentary debate – the Scottish government responded to the Nukewatch report by conducting and publishing its critically flawed Preparedness Review. The Scottish Government appears to hope (vainly) that the matter is now closed.

Civil emergency planning is devolved and the key legislation is the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) which obliges civil authorities to be ready to respond to identified threats, to assess risks and to keep the public informed. The Act identifies a number of civil bodies as Category 1 Responders: Police Scotland, Fire and Rescue Services, the Scottish Ambulance Service, Local Authorities and the Health Service. Responsibility to ensure compliance with the Act rests with the Scottish Government, as exercised through its Resilience Division. The public face of all this is the website Ready Scotland, and three regional multi-agency Risk Registers produced by regional Resilience Partnerships.

Overall, the findings of ‘Unready Scotland’ are disturbing. Indeed, one local authority, West Lothian, was actually unaware of the regular nuclear weapon convoy traffic through its area via the M9. Not one of the surveyed local authorities had made any effort to inform their public of this particular threat to community safety, in spite of the following guidance on public information given by the Resilience Division, which advises: 1. Public awareness of risk (pre-event), and preparedness steps where relevant 2. Public warning (at the time of the event or when one is imminent) 3. Informing, advising and engaging with the public (immediate and long-term post event).

The authors of ‘Unready Scotland’ speculated whether this deficit also applied to other serious threats, such as pandemics. The fact that the main avenue of public information on civil emergencies is a website or two (of which most people have not even heard) reminds one of the destruction of the earth by the Vogons in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “There’s no point acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”

One Edinburgh Community Council asked the Police Scotland attendee what citizens should do in an emergency that required taking shelter. The answer? Knock on the jannie’s door at your local high school. One of the encouraging aspects of the current emergency is the way most folk have digested and acted responsibly on the advice and instructions that have been issued. One cannot help thinking that this process would have been usefully accelerated with a proactive pre-event public information programme. Time to treat citizens as actual grown-ups.

A serious nuclear convoy accident leading to a release of plutonium at the junction of the M74 and the M8 in Tradeston in Glasgow would require evacuation and/or shelter in a radius of five kilometres (if you accept the Ministry of Defence conservative estimate). It would be up to Ministry of Defence personnel to deal with the immediate area of the accident and securing the weapons themselves would be their priority. The rest would be up to Police Scotland and the other civil agencies, including Glasgow City Council. Is there a plan for that scenario, do you think?

And in the light of the scrambling right now to supply adequate stocks of protective equipment for front-line workers our proactive preparations for a pandemic have been at the least seriously incomplete, so that those who are now working so hard and so effectively in response to the crisis are having to play catch-up.

In studying the nuclear weapon transport issue we have had to acknowledge that our local authorities have been seriously damaged by decades of savage funding cuts. It is often said that their work is trimmed down to dealing with their statutory duties alone. Yet emergency readiness is a statutory duty, under the Civil Contingencies Act. A more likely distinction is that between those problems that are already clamouring for attention and those problems that may not happen, given a little luck. Hence the hoop-jumping, the bland reassurances, the fantastical acronym-infested bureaucratic structures.

There’s a better and more honest way. The International Committee of the Red Cross has given a fine example by admitting that in the case of even a regional nuclear exchange, such as between Pakistan and India, the international emergency services could offer nothing meaningful by way of a response. How about admitting in advance of the next emergency that we are a fairly unready Scotland, that emergency planning is currently well down the list of priorities and then let’s have a genuine public discussion of what has to be done about it.  In the case of the nuclear weapon convoys, the answer is pretty simple; just stop it now.

David Mackenzie is Assistant Secretary of Scottish CND and is a member of the Nukewatch network, which monitors the road transportation of nuclear weapons within the UK. With Jane Tallents he co-authored the Nukewatch report Unready Scotland.

Picture courtesy of Nicolas Raymond