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Resilience First calls for UK government to review terror threat levels framework

Following the latest terrorist attack in London, which took place just 15 days after the official UK threat level was lowered, Resilience First is calling on the UK government to review the current threat level framework.

This framework has now been in place for more than a decade and over time has become less meaningful and relevant as a tool to warn the general public. Ministers are being asked to consider introducing a revised system that is simpler to understand, more relevant to citizens and more likely to generate the required vigilance than the existing system.

A simpler system, such as the two-levels used by the US Department of Homeland Security (Elevated and Imminent) or three levels of flood warning used by the UK Environment Agency, could be combined with action-orientated messaging aimed at the wider community to generate more relevant citizen responses. Resilience First has written to the Minister of State for Security, The Rt Hon Brandon Lewis, asking him to include this topic in the already announced government review of the UK’s defence and security strategy.

The current arrangements for the government to declare a national threat level, and place this in the public domain, were put in place in 2006 following the 7/7 bombings in 2005. Since 2006 several challenges have arisen to the use of the existing system, which have called into question whether it is still fit for purpose.

The first of these is definitional value and whether, given that the threat level has not dropped below ‘Substantial’ since 2006 and is unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future, a five-level framework, including ‘Low and ‘Moderate’ is helpful. The fine distinction between ‘highly likely’ and ‘likely’ is not one that anyone outside professional security circles is likely to appreciate.

The second issue is the question of duration. When an enhanced threat level lasts for 25 months, as has recently been the case, the question needs to be asked what is achieved in terms of maintaining vigilance, which can easily wane over a prolonged period.

The third issue is that of national coverage and whether locations as diverse as central London and Wales, which has never suffered a major terrorist attack, should be treated the same. Greater granularity across different industry sectors, as well as locations, may be helpful accepting that displacement activity could be a consequence.

A review could also examine the benefits of supplementing threat levels with directed actions that indicate what people should do in the face of an attack or disruption. A desired change of behaviour or plan of action would be the objective. The actions would complement regular campaigns such as ‘Run, Hide, Tell’ and ‘Action Counters Terrorism’ but with specific, actionable messages tailored to the particular threat level. The message must go beyond vigilance and offer positive advice on meaningful actions.

Lord Toby Harris, a member of the Advisory Board of Resilience First, said: 

“It is easy to say in hindsight that the lowering of the threat level was premature with the death of al-Baghdadi and with a General Election preceding Christmas. Previous such events have indeed been marked by terrorist atrocities. Rather than analyse the reasoning from a distance, however, we should ask whether the current threat levels remain fit for purpose for the private sector and the wider public.

“The threat of terrorism from one organization or other has been with us for a long time and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. If the public and wider private sector are to retain confidence in official threat assessments and pronouncements, even though they may not be the declared primary audience to date, then it is time to review the role and purpose of the threat levels as currently constructed.”

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