Ready for the future: Meeting people's needs in an emergency

Calling for people-centred systems, structures and legislation around emergencies in the UK.  

Our report, Ready for the future: meeting people’s needs in an emergency, looks at whether the current systems, structures and legislation around emergencies in the UK are people-centred and effective in an emergency.

Our research highlights where change is needed and offers recommendations for improvement across seven themes:

  • leadership and accountability
  • planning
  • collaboration across silos and organisational boundaries
  • community engagement
  • human-centred care
  • active charities and volunteers
  • continuously learning lessons and future-proofing

We want to make sure that the Civil Contingencies Act - or any other legislation underpinning future UK emergencies - meets people's needs.

The coronavirus pandemic has been the longest running emergency of our time - this research is needed now more than ever.

A graphic from the British Red Cross Emergency Structures report showing different society groups.

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For more information, contact Ellen Tranter (Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer):

Covid-19 meant that for the first time, the same emergency was on the doorstep of every household in the world. But the impacts were felt differently by each individual and their community.


This report is our contribution to how we can learn from the pandemic and better respond to future UK emergencies, in a more human-centred way that addresses someone’s unique situation and needs.


It shows that the UK’s emergency response structures and legislation needs to be updated and strengthened to better meet people’s needs. Currently, support is a postcode lottery and more could be done to include the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) in emergency response.


“In future, we must ensure that we put people and communities at the heart of how we design and deliver emergency response. Now is the time to change.

Mike Adamson, chief executive British Red Cross, co-chair of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership

Key findings

Leadership and accountability

People throughout the emergency response ecosystem work incredibly hard in emergencies. However, current arrangements mean that roles and responsibilities during an emergency can be unclear at a local and national level.

This presents opportunities to improve collaboration across and between central and local governments and their partners.

  • Our report makes the case for a clearer central government role in the planning, response, recovery and learning phases, and more local autonomy. This would require a formalised cross-government approach in line with the Integrated Review, clearer lines of accountability and improved funding processes.
  • We also recommend official means of scrutinising and reviewing emergency response. Leaders should draw on the expertise of a range of stakeholders, from scientific advisors to the voluntary and community sector, before, during and after an emergency.


How well the UK prepare for emergency responses varies across the country. In some cases, this is due to a lack of capacity and resourcing at a local level.

  • We recommend increased investment in and improved planning standards. This would help emergency responders understand their role, who to engage with and who is most at risk when an emergency strikes.
  • Our report also highlights the importance of carrying out training exercises and fostering working relationships in peacetime as well as greater investment in identifying and reducing risk ahead of time. 
  • We also suggest routinely drawing on the voluntary and community sector’s unique, strategic insight into our community needs and assets.

Collaboration across organisational boundaries

No one organisation or sector can effectively meet the needs of a community in an emergency. Yet, working alone or 'silo' working within and across organisations remain a significant issue in emergency response.

  • To create a more human-centred approach, we recommend that organisations move away from relationships that rely soley on the exchange of information and work towards a shared understanding of what is needed to respond to an emergency.
  • We also recommend that structural barriers, such as data-sharing, are improved.

Community engagement

The UK’s resilience to unforeseen emergencies - such as the coronavirus pandemic - depends on a community's ability and confidence to prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies.

  • We strongly recommend that organisations work with those affected, or who are at risk of being affected, by an emergency. These crucial perspectives are often disregarded in our emergency response systems and structures.
  • We recommend that communities are involved in every stage of the crisis response and resilience process – from planning to learning.
  • To support this, the government needs to invest in community engagement and structured emergency planning. Local co-ordinators must be better supported so they can develop mitigation and adaptation strategies directly with the community.

People-centred care

People and community needs in an emergency are diverse and varied. They can range from immediate practical needs, such as food or shelter, to psychosocial support and information and advice.

  • Currently, systems, structures and legislation tends to underestimate what people need to cope and recover from an emergency.
  • Our report identifies two urgent areas for improvement; cash assistance and psychosocial support. Both would offer a more personalised approach, and help communities maintain a greater sense of control, dignity, choice and confidence.

Active charities and volunteers

Covid-19 shines a spotlight on the value of the voluntary and community sector. Emergency responders and central government rely on this sector to mobilise volunteers as well as reach and build trust among seldom heard, and marginalised communities.

  • The voluntary and community sector’s insights into hidden needs and vulnerabilities, and unique ability to tap into the resources and assets within a community, has helped improve key agendas, from vaccine roll-outs to supporting those shielding.
  • Despite these insights, the voluntary and community sector are often not involved in emergency planning, response, recovery and learning. Crucially, they are not involved in planning and strategic decision making either.
  • Current legislation and guidance needs to be strengthened to foster better collaboration with the VCS.

Continuous learning and future-proofing

Our research showed that lessons learned are rarely used to improve emergency response in the real world:

  • Some of these lessons drew on a number of recommendations made after the foot and mouth crisis, which could have been used to improve the Covid-19 response (from worst-case scenario planning to improved early warning).
  • Better debrief processes at both a local and national level, and involving a broader range of stakeholders, such as the voluntary and community sector would help improve the situation.
  • Beyond learning lessons, there is a clear need to better prepare for evolving threats, such as climate change and extreme weather.
  • This could be achieved by reviewing and updating the National Risk Register and developing climate risk resilience, response and recovery strategies.