Sat, 2 March 2024

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Strengthening the role of the voluntary sector will help improve our response to future crises

3 min read

As Parliament focuses on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, both the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance are providing humanitarian and medical support during the largest humanitarian emergency experienced in Europe since the Second World War.

The support our charities provided during the Covid-19 pandemic taught us important steps that need to be taken now to improve the ways we respond to crises in future.

This month brings a critical moment to do just that and decide the future of our country’s emergency planning system. As part of a five-yearly review process, the government will decide by the end of March whether to update the Civil Contingencies Act. It is crucial that we do not miss the opportunity to review the legislation and make the necessary improvements.

Our charities have delivered for the nation in a way they haven’t been called upon to since the Second World War

Our two organisations have a longstanding history of coming together during times of crisis - supporting people, communities, our NHS and emergency services during times of greatest need.

With our national networks of highly trained volunteers, our vehicles and specialised equipment, we provide critical surge capacity to emergency, local authority and health partners to support the system in times of crisis.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, our unique abilities to tap into communities - especially those most vulnerable - and coordinate support from the wider voluntary and community sector (VCS) were vital.

The British Red Cross made food and medicine provision for those shielding quicker and easier, and St John Ambulance’s clinically trained volunteers supported ambulance trusts, hospital trusts and helped drive the vaccination rollout. Our charities have delivered for the nation in a way they haven’t been called upon to since the Second World War but, amongst all of that effort and success, we have also seen a need for better coordination and consistency.

Nearly two decades on from when the Civil Contingencies Act was first created – against a backdrop of a fuel crisis and foot and mouth outbreak – we must now seize the opportunity to stand back, review and make the necessary changes to improve how we respond to emergencies for people and communities.

Based on our shared experience of what has worked well in the last two years, we believe that strengthening the role of voluntary organisations in civil contingencies legislation and guidance will result in improved emergency planning and response, which puts the needs of people and communities at its heart.

We are each invested in ensuring our unique auxiliary roles and status are used more effectively during times of crisis, and are recognised in a revised Civil Contingencies Act that will reflect the key support we provide in our ambulance, medical and humanitarian fields.

Alongside a review of the Act, we are aware that the development of the National Resilience Strategy will provide an opportunity to consider the UK’s emergency structures. However, this is not a substitute for a full review, which will allow the legislative changes we believe are necessary, as well as changes to practice and wider capacity building.

The British Red Cross and St John Ambulance encourage the government to take the opportunity to amend the Civil Contingencies Act now; so that we are even better prepared for whatever emergencies the future brings.


Mike Adamson is the chief executive of the British Red Cross. Martin Houghton-Brown is the chief executive of St John Ambulance.

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