How the British Government responds to a crisis in Japan, and how you can offer support

Aug. 2, 2018

Representatives from the British Embassy, Tokyo led a BCCJ event on 17 July to give members an insight into how the UK government might respond to a disaster in Japan.

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, disaster preparedness and crisis response has been a hot topic at the BCCJ. In a hackathon about risk held on 14 June, natural disasters were identified as one of the top three risks for BCCJ member firms. A further risk-related BCCJ event is planned for autumn.

Opening the session, Chris Heffer, director of trade and investment and head of crisis management at the British Embassy, Tokyo, outlined the British government’s classification of risks in Japan. He said that earthquakes pose the greatest risk, followed by bird and pandemic flu. Other risks, such as political strife, high-jacking and industrial or nuclear accidents are comparatively low risk.

HM Consul Andy Ziardis pointed out that although the British government considers natural disasters to be a major risk in Japan, any incident involving a large number of British nationals would require a response by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). Like every embassy across the FCO network, the British Embassy, Tokyo has a crisis plan, with consular staff receiving ongoing training and regularly exercising a wide range of scenarios.

Three scenarios would place the embassy in crisis mode:

  • Threat of death to, or mass casualties of, British nationals
  • Inability of the embassy to operate from its premises
  • Potential damage to the reputation of the British government


How does the embassy respond?

When a crisis occurs that has major implications for the UK, the British government enacts COBRA, the civil contingencies committee named after cabinet office briefing room A in which it sits. COBRA ultimately leads the response of the British Embassy, Tokyo, which has a duty of care to the estimated 15,000 British citizens resident in Japan.

Once the situation is classified as a crisis, business as usual ceases at the embassy and all staff move into one of six previously assigned teams (media, welfare, political, consular, logistics and information) in which they have been trained. With Heffer acting as crisis manager, each team manages the crisis on a round-the-clock basis. Actions will depend on the degree of the crisis, which ranks from bronze (low severity) to gold (high severity).

Within the first two days, these teams aim to:

  1. Establish if any of its staff are affected and what the staff capacity is to respond to the crisis. 
  2. Ascertain the number of casualties and deaths, and what information is public knowledge.
  3. Disseminate information quickly via Twitter, Facebook and the UK government’s Travel Advice site. Encourage people to follow the accounts, to keep abreast of the crisis.
  4. Contact the embassy’s 27 trained volunteer wardens in Japan to provide information from the areas affected. These efforts are in addition to working with local governments.
  5. Decide on the teams to be deployed to the crisis and how many people might be required.
  6. Consider resources based on the tempo of the crisis, how long it might last and whether more support is required from staff in the region.


Support for British nationals

Ziardis encouraged British nationals in Japan to sign up via email or social media to the FCO’s travel advice alerts. If a crisis is declared, the FCO would set up an information hotline as well as social media and online webform facilities so people who require assistance could contact the FCO. These initiatives replace registration, as a precautionary measure in case an emergency occurs, which did not prove popular with the British public. Moreover, registration did not provide an accurate account of British nationals abroad as the information was not updated sufficiently.

In exceptional circumstances, the FCO may organise an assisted departure by helping British nationals to access transport or by providing transport for an evacuation to an appropriate place of safety. Ziardis pointed out that there may be limits to this assistance depending on the security and transport situation. If, for example, the FCO had advised against all travel to the affected area, staff may not be able to provide any assistance in certain situations.

The British government can also offer help to other eligible persons, including nationals of other European Union member states, Commonwealth nationals who do not have an embassy in Japan from which to get help, and family members of British nationals (spouse/partner and dependent children aged 18 years and under, he added.

Attendees were encouraged to ensure each member of their family always has a valid passport. If someone has no passport, they can use identification to apply for an emergency travel document. For a child to receive such a document, parents should supply a paper copy of the child’s birth certificate along with a paper copy of their marriage certificate to prove parentage.


How can member firms help?

Heffer pointed out four areas in which the embassy would require support in a crisis:

  • Technical advice and expertise
  • Communications, to get information to large numbers of British nationals
  • Transport to affected regions as well as kit to use there and accommodation
  • Bilingual Japanese and English speakers who can enable deployment teams to do their work

UK Gov's general advice on dealing with a crisis overseas:


Produced by Sterling Content for the BCCJ