Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents

2  The case studies

Swine flu

9. Influenza, or flu, is caused by a virus that affects the respiratory tract. "Ordinary" influenza circulates constantly in humans and tends to peak in the winter months. Pandemic influenza, on the other hand, results from a new strain of virus that spreads globally due to lack of human immunity to the new virus. Influenza pandemics have occurred several times over the last century, although they are difficult to predict and the virulence and mortality rate can vary greatly.

10. The most severe infections are caused by influenza A viruses, such as H5N1 or A/H1N1 (the "H" and "N" numbers refer to the protein structure of the virus). The "swine flu" virus (A/H1N1, frequently referred to as H1N1) was a new strain of H1N1 flu virus. The A/H1N1 virus is far less virulent than the less-transmissible, but more deadly, H5N1 virus.

11. Fears around the impact of a new influenza pandemic have focused on the threat of an H5N1 pandemic. H5N1 is an avian (bird) influenza virus that emerged in 1997 in Hong Kong and re-emerged in 2003 in a number of countries of South East Asia to become endemic[5] in a number of them. As of 13 January 2011, there have been 306 confirmed deaths due to H5N1, approximately half of them in Indonesia.[6] It is impossible to predict when the virus might reach a sufficient level to allow for widespread human-to-human transmission. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that in the case of a pandemic caused by H5N1, millions of people could die of the disease. Since 2005, there have been significant investments by national governments and the international community to prepare for an H5N1 pandemic. In the UK, preparedness has involved comprehensive emergency planning in the NHS, antiviral and H5N1 vaccine stockpiling, and the provision of sleeping contracts for pandemic strain vaccines (meaning that manufacturers reserve a certain number of doses of vaccines they develop).

12. The swine flu story began on 23 April 2009 when cases of H1N1 virus were confirmed in Mexico and the USA. A few days later, cases in the UK were confirmed. A timeline of key events is summarised in Box 1.[7]

Box 1: Swine flu pandemic timeline
23 AprilCases of H1N1 virus are confirmed in Mexico and the USA
27 AprilThe first two UK cases of H1N1 are confirmed in a couple from Scotland
29 AprilGovernment announces that the stockpile of antivirals will be increased from 33.5 million to 50 million
1 MayFirst case of human-to-human transmission in the UK is confirmed
15 MayAgreements made to secure up to 90 million doses of pre-pandemic vaccine
11 JuneWorld Health Organisation raises its pandemic alert level to 6, the highest level
16 JulyChief Medical Officer announces that up to 65,000 people could die from swine flu in a worst case scenario[8]
13 AugustSecretary of State for Health announces the identification of priority groups: pregnant women, front-line health and social care workers, and everyone in at-risk groups aged over six months
10 SeptemberThe four UK health departments release critical care strategies to cope with the expected increases in demand during the second wave of the pandemic
21 OctoberVaccination programme begins: front-line healthcare workers and their patients who fall into at-risk categories
19 NovemberPhase two of vaccination programme begins: children over six months and under five years
18 MarchTotal UK deaths: 457; 342 in England, 69 in Scotland, 28 in Wales and 18 in Northern Ireland
1 April  Antiviral medicines no longer available from national stockpiles

Antiviral collection points in England are closed

The Swine Flu Information Line is terminated

Treatment of people with flu-like symptoms returns to business as usual

13. The virus remained in circulation even though the pandemic was no longer treated as an emergency. October normally marks the start of flu season, and in October 2010 the consultation rate for influenza-like illnesses in England and Wales—a proxy for the level of influenza—began to rise, peaking at 124.2 consultations per 100,000 population in early December 2010. By 12 January 2011, 112 fatal cases from across the UK had been reported to the Health Protection Agency and confirmed to be associated with influenza infection, out of which 95 were caused by H1N1.[9] The swine flu (H1N1) virus was being treated as one of the group of seasonal flu viruses circulating around the world rather than as a pandemic (that is, an emergency situation).[10] (We were interested in the differences in vaccination strategy and, in January 2011, wrote to the Government to ask why the seasonal vaccination programme differed from the pandemic. The Government's response can be found in the written evidence accompanying this Report[11] and we examine this matter briefly at paragraph 129.)

14. The swine flu pandemic was the first emergency where a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was convened to advise Government. SAGE was a key focus of our inquiry and is explained in detail in chapter 6. During the swine flu emergency, a SAGE committee met 22 times between 5 May 2009 and 11 January 2010.

Volcanic ash

15. Iceland is situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary between two tectonic plates. The island itself was formed by volcanic activity and has several active volcanoes. In April 2010, the Eyjafallajökull volcano erupted, ejecting significant quantities of ash into the atmosphere. The ash eruption coincided with meteorological conditions that meant the ash covered much of Europe. Historically, Icelandic volcanic eruptions producing ash which is deposited in the UK is nothing unusual.[12] However, there has not been an eruption affecting the UK for decades, coinciding with the time period over which aviation became part of everyday life. The most significant impact of the eruption in April 2010 was that airspace was closed for a week, causing huge disruption to aviation, stranding passengers around the world and costing the UK economy hundreds of millions of pounds. The key scientific issue was determining the tolerances of aircraft and their engines to the particular ash particulates present in European airspace.

16. A timeline of key events is summarised in Box 2.

Box 2: Volcanic ash emergency timeline
DecemberSeismic activity detected at Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland
20 MarchEyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland first erupts through a side fissure Impacts are largely confined to Iceland
14 AprilA more intense and sustained eruption occurs in the central crater, resulting in ejection of solid matter up to11 km into the atmosphere
15 AprilMany European aviation authorities (including UK) close airspace.

Government Chief Scientific Adviser meets with Cabinet Office[13]

British Geological Survey start advising civil contingencies secretariat[14]

Met Office uses NERC[15] plane for four-hour test flight

18 AprilGovernment Chief Scientific Adviser meets Prime Minister

British Airways conducts three-hour test flight in Cardiff

19 AprilBritish Airways CEO declares blanket restrictions on airspace are unnecessary after engines were found to be unaffected
20 AprilScottish airspace reopens
21 AprilAll UK airports reopen

First SAGE meeting takes place[16]

3 MayAsh cloud returns; some airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland close
6 May  All UK airports (re)open
16 MaySeveral airports in northwest England close as ash cloud returns
17 MayHeathrow and Gatwick close

Several airports in northwest reopen

23 May  Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre at Met Office declares eruption over

17. This was the second time a SAGE was convened. The SAGE formed to provide scientific advice in this emergency met four times between 21 April and 24 June 2010.

Space weather

18. "Space weather" refers to changes in the space environment near Earth, caused by varying conditions in the Sun's atmosphere. Table 1 summarises the different types of space weather and indicates examples of impact.

Table 1: Categories of space weather
Space weather CauseExamples of potential impacts
Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) Plasma ejected violently from outer atmosphere of Sun Fluctuations in Earth's magnetic field (geomagnetic storms), driving additional current into power grids, disrupting satellites, GPS and radars
Solar Energetic Particle (SEP) events High energy particles expelled from Sun during solar events like CMEs Damage to electronics, computer chips and power systems in spacecraft (possibly at ground level too), raised ground radiation levels
Solar radio bursts Intense bursts of radio noise produced by solar events like CMEs Interference with low power wireless radio technologies such as mobile phones, wireless internet and GPS receivers
Solar flares Outburst of radiation and energetic particles Modest effects at Earth

19. Space weather is an everyday occurrence and resilience is routinely built into some components of infrastructure such as satellites. However, more severe events do occur. The Carrington event in 1859, named after the British astronomer who first witnessed the solar activity, was (and remains) the most severe space weather event recorded. The Carrington event was a CME that caused global disruption to telegraph systems around the world. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.[17] So wide-ranging was the impact that aurorae (visual effects caused by geomagnetic disturbances in the atmosphere, normally seen towards polar regions) were seen in near equatorial regions such as Hawaii.

20. It is widely believed that an event of the same magnitude today would have a much greater impact due to our increased reliance on electricity-based technology.[18] There have been less severe events since 1859. For example, in 1989, a geomagnetic storm caused by a CME caused Quebec's power grid to collapse within 90 seconds, affecting several million people for nine hours.[19] In 2003, space weather caused an hour-long power outage in Sweden. The effects of severe space weather are not limited to particular latitudes; the 2003 event also affected South Africa.

21. Solar activity changes according to a cycle lasting approximately 11 years. In this period, solar activity increases during a solar maximum, making space weather events more likely. However, space weather events do not necessarily obey the solar cycle; the Carrington event occurred in the middle of an unexceptional solar cycle.[20] The next solar maximum (a period of likely increased activity) is predicted to occur around 2012-13. Given the impending solar maximum, we were interested in how the Government was assessing the risks posed by space weather and preparing for a potential emergency.

Cyber attacks

22. The Government publication Cyber Security Strategy of the United Kingdom, published in June 2009, defines cyber space as encompassing "all forms of networked, digital activities; this includes the content of and actions conducted through digital networks".[21] Cyber security is usually taken to mean the resilience of these complex interconnected networks.

23. There are different types of cyber attack, many of which occur on a daily basis in the UK. Table 2 provides a summary.

Table 2: Types of cyber attack
Denial of Service (DoS/DDoS)DoS attacks overload systems with so much traffic that they cannot cope. Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks come from many sources simultaneously. The machines creating the attack traffic are usually running "malware" (malicious software) which has been delivered by email or picked up by visiting a website. Users are generally completely unaware that their machines have been compromised.
PhishingForging e-mails to entice users to visit a fake version of a bank website, so that their login details can be stolen
Spear phishingE-mails addressed to a single person within an organisation, perhaps forged to appear to come from colleagues. The malware within these e-mails will infect that person's computer with the aim of perpetrating a major financial crime, or stealing commercial secrets.
Subversion of supply chainAltering technology supplied to an individual or organisation (for example implanting malicious programs) in order to make network attacks easier or to deliberately leak financial data
Complex attacks on infrastructureMuch of the "critical national infrastructure" relies upon computers and communications networks. Cyber attackers might interfere with these, perhaps over the Internet from a remote location, and thereby cause widespread disruption.

24. The cyber attacks case study, in contrast to the other three, described a man-made threat rather than a natural risk. As well as the different types of attack, the motivations of attackers—criminal, political or state-sponsored—must also be considered. As we began our inquiry, the "Stuxnet" worm had just been identified to be circulating. It is understood to be the first-known worm designed to target physical infrastructure such as power stations, water plants and industrial units, and, in this case, for the sole purpose of disrupting Iran's uranium enrichment programme.[22] Subsequent analysis has shown it to be a highly sophisticated program that can not only spread over the Internet but can also be carried from machine to machine on portable flash drives, giving it the ability to infect isolated systems. We were told that it would have taken six people to create the worm over five months, with funding to the order of £1 million.[23]

25. The Stuxnet worm provided an actual example of how organised and structured cyber attacks on critical infrastructure systems could succeed[24] and how they could be used in the future to cause emergency situations. We wanted to find out more about how the Government is assessing the risks of cyber attacks and preparing for a potential national emergency.

5   Endemic means that the infection is sustained in the population without external inputs. Back

6   "Cumulative Number of Confirmed Human Cases of Avian Influenza A/(H5N1) Reported to WHO", World Health Organisation,13 January 2011, Back

7   Cabinet Office, The 2009 Influenza Pandemic: An independent review of the UK response to the 2009 influenza pandemic, July 2010, pp 2-5 Back

8   "Swine flu could kill 65,000 in UK, warns chief medical officer", The Guardian, 16 July 2009,  Back

9   Health Protection Agency, HPA Weekly National Influenza Report, 12 January 2011 Back

10   "October - flu season and HPA flu surveillance begins", Health Protection Agency press release 2010, 6 October 2010 Back

11   Ev 164  Back

12   "Iceland and the British Isles: the volcanic connections", British Geological Survey, Back

13   Ev 100 [Government Office for Science and Cabinet Office] Back

14   Ev 124 [Research Councils UK], para 33 Back

15   Natural Environment Research Council Back

16   Ev 100 [Government Office for Science and Cabinet Office] Back

17   "A Super Solar Flare", NASA Science News, 6 May 2008, Back

18   Ev 120 [Royal Aeronautical Society], para 37 Back

19   Ev 119 [Royal Aeronautical Society], para 36 Back

20   Ev w37 [UCL Institute for Risk] Back

21   Cabinet Office, Cyber Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Safety, security and resilience in cyber space, June 2009, p 7 Back

22   "Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay", The New York Times, 15 January 2011, Back

23   Qq 257-58 Back

24   Q 258 Back

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