Famine! Plague! Tsunami! The one thing Ireland won't do is . . .
Maguire defines a major emergency as “something beyond the normal capability of the services to respond”. Every day the State’s services respond effectively to ordinary emergencies. We live in a temperate zone not prone to natural disasters. We have no nuclear facilities. In the past few years our national emergencies have included severe weather – snow and flooding – and one case of volcanic ash disrupting travel.
The most recent drill carried out at the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre was not about a nuclear war, but about a fictional train derailment in Carlow. “All the key players were involved, and it was co-ordinated from here,” says Spain.
The enemy of good crisis planning is panic, as well, potentially, as articles like this one, which present unlikely scenarios and make frequent use of exclamation marks (see below). A few years ago the Office of Emergency Planning sent a booklet to every home in the country called Preparing for Major Emergencies. It was informed by market research.
Spain recalls watching a focus group through one-way glass. “The surprising thing was that people didn’t actually want to know the details of the plans. They just wanted to know that people had given thought to preparing those plans and that things weren’t prepared on the hoof. What they were looking for was reassurance.”
I grew up in an age of nuclear hysteria. Terrifying TV programmes like Threads and When the Wind Blows depicted postnuclear societal breakdown, radiation poisoning, starvation and, ultimately, death.
Governmental nuclear-event planning has always seemed farcical. Manuals from the 1950s show people making bomb shelters with their doors, brushing radiation from cows and avoiding annihilation by curling into a ball like a hedgehog.
In 2001, the State distributed iodine tablets in a wake of hysteria surrounding Sellafield, only to find itself facing another wave of hysteria when those tablets went out of date in 2005. (Incidentally, iodine tablets are nowadays thought to be useful only for those living within 10-20km of the affected plant).
“The National Emergency Plan for Nuclear Accidents has existed since the early 1990s,” says Dr Ciara McMahon, director of environmental surveillance and assessment at the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. “It was put in place after Chernobyl.”
Nowadays, the main threat is not nefarious trigger-happy communists but accidents at British nuclear plants, something that McMahon makes sound entirely manageable.
The main advice in the emergency plan is to “go in, stay in and tune in” until the radioactive plume has passed by. (They suggest this might be for only a few hours.) McMahon says 90 per cent of radiation issues in the event of any nuclear emergency abroad would come from consumption of contaminated food.
“If you have radioactive air passing by it’s only for a short timeframe. But food can get contaminated, because the grass is contaminated and the cows eat the grass, so the milk and meat get contaminated. We would work very closely with the Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety Authority and the Department of the Environment. A lot of it would be about giving the cows different food to eat – stored feed or feed we buy in.”
In cinema, pandemics range from realistically rendered flu viruses (as seen in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion) to eye-bleeding diseases spread by unrepentant monkeys and cured by Dustin Hoffman (Outbreak) to zombie apocalypses (Day of the Dead).
“There’s a national pandemic plan, which is currently being revised by the Department of Health with our assistance,” says Gavin Maguire of the HSE. This involves the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre working with international bodies to observe what’s emerging around the world. Maguire talks about the speed with which swine flu spread from Mexico and the rapid spread of Spanish flu in 1918. “A virulent strain of pandemic can spread very quickly,” he says.
The plan suggests that during a confirmed pandemic people should stock up on a week’s food and supplies, a thermometer, paracetamol or ibuprofen. They should also listen to news updates and read public-health notices about hygiene. A telephone GP hotline would also be set up to take pressure off GPs and emergency rooms. In extreme scenarios, the World Health Organisation might restrict international travel.