An extraordinary response led by FCO staff
No organisation was adequately prepared to respond to the tsunami which struck southern Asia on 26 December 2004. It was totally unexpected; and unprecedented in its scale, its geographical extent, in the numbers affected, and in its impact on individuals and communities in the UK.
FCO staff responded to the emergency, leading the efforts on the ground of staff from a range of departments and agencies. They were helped by volunteers including many of their family members and friends, along with others from local British communities. They worked closely with the emergency services of the countries affected.
As this report shows, these staff, families, friends and other volunteers rose to the unprecedented challenge of responding to the disaster, and did outstanding work in the most difficult of circumstances to give all the help and assistance they could to the victims of the tsunami. They and their colleagues and friends shared many of the frustrations and traumas of the survivors and their families.
Indeed, members of British Embassy staff and their families were themselves killed or injured in the tsunami, so staff responding to the crisis had in many cases to do so in the context of having lost colleagues and friends. They and their colleagues and friends shared many of the frustrations and traumas of the survivors and their families. There are countless examples of individual compassion and resilience in the UK's response to the disaster, and of UK victims and families who got an exceptional level of support despite the chaos which the tsunami left in Thailand, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
Our commitment to supporting those affected and to learning lessons
Our commitment to helping those British nationals affected by the tsunami remains today and for the future, for example in the still-continuing work to identify missing victims and in our support to families and friends during the first anniversary commemorative events.
Inevitably, at the time, there were some families and individuals caught up in the tsunami who did not get the support we would have wanted to give them. The same is true for people from every country and in every situation: no nation or agency was prepared for an event on this scale, and none was able to respond as they would have wished. Many of the experiences of UK families in this regard are recounted in the report published today.
The British Government has – as we always will – said sorry to those whom we couldn't support as we would have wanted.
And we have been determined to learn the lessons from their experiences. To build on our own lessons-learned work in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the FCO asked the National Audit Office to help us produce a joint lessons-learned paper which we published last November. And to follow that up, the NAO commissioned the Zito Trust to undertake a further study, published today, of the experiences of those most directly affected.
|Joint findings on lessons to be learned from the handling of the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami - National Audit Office website|
|Tsunami - Department for Culture, Media & Sport website|
|Tsunami Support UK|
Though this research was conducted some time on from the tragedy itself, at the Zito trust's recommendation, we have worked with individual victims and families since the tsunami to identify how we can improve our crisis response. As a result of that work, many of the recommendations in today's report are ones which we have either already implemented or set in train.
We now have, for example:
A continuing support network, run by the Red Cross, for victims of the tsunami and their families. We provided the funding to set this up in the months following the tragedy, and continue to work closely with those involved;
Almost double the number of Rapid Deployment Team volunteers in London as at the time of the tsunami; a tougher selection process for volunteers; an enhanced training course set to current best practice standards; and the first regional RDTs in Hong Kong and North America;
Greatly-improved call-handling capacity allowing police forces around the country to take on call-handling in major crises; surge capacity at our Travel Advice call centre; and the option of a support line from the Red Cross;
Formal arrangements with the police, the Red Cross and DCMS (on support for victims in the UK) which are either finalised or nearly so. Police officers, Red Cross staff and medical staff now deploy with our RDTs.
Crisis training for all heads of post and training for all out-of-hours duty officers at every post world-wide;
Better emergency plans, more rigorously tested in every one of our posts abroad;
Work to develop an online registration system so travellers can let us know where they plan to be; and so that families can register details of people who may be affected during a crisis.
We still have a good deal more to do. The FCO welcomes the NAO/Zito Trust report, both because of its endorsement of much of the work that we have already done, and because it gives us a clear direction for continuing that work.
There is never likely to be a perfect response to an event such as the tsunami: every such major catastrophe shows up lessons to be learned. The FCO is determined to continue working to help improve HMG's crisis response overseas, learning lessons from every incident.