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Explainer

COBR (COBRA)

COBR’s purpose is high-level co-ordination and decision making in the event of major or catastrophic emergencies.

Cabinet Office sign
COBR is the acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, a series of rooms located in the Cabinet Office in 70 Whitehall.

What is COBR or COBRA?

COBR or COBRA is shorthand for the Civil Contingencies Committee that is convened to handle matters of national emergency or major disruption. Its purpose is to coordinate different departments and agencies in response to such emergencies. COBR is the acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, a series of rooms located in the Cabinet Office in 70 Whitehall.

Why is it sometimes called COBRA?

COBR began life as an emergency situation centre which was developed as part of a review of civil contingency machinery following the 1972 miners’ strike. The origins of it being referred to as Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA) are not clear. It may have been confused with a Treasury briefing room A or because it made the acronym more obvious and memorable. 

What does COBR do?

COBR’s purpose is high-level co-ordination and decision making in the event of major or catastrophic emergencies, including natural disasters, terrorist attacks and major industrial accidents or disruption. Depending on the emergency, officials and agencies most closely involved will already be handling many of the immediate decisions – for example, in a terrorist attack the emergency services and security services will already be responding, while in the event of floods or other natural disaster the Environment Agency, local authorities and emergency services will be coordinating immediate action.

The 2004 Civil Contingencies Act set out responsibilities at local, national, agency and departmental level for different kinds of emergencies. COBR’s purpose is to keep ministers appraised of the situation, to ensure that the wider response of the government is coordinated, to record and disseminate key decisions and updates to all relevant ministers and officials, and to provide ministers and the prime minister with up to date information on the situation for any decisions that they may need to make. Following the 9/11 attacks the committee was used to take the decision to immediately close UK airspace.

When does COBR meet?

COBR meets during any crisis or emergency where it is warranted, but this can be ad hoc and the timing of meetings may be dependent on ministerial availability. Officials will convene a committee and use the emergency situation centre in the absence of ministers when a situation requires. Following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre, the cabinet secretary Richard Wilson chaired COBR until ministers and then the prime minister were able to attend. Convening it can sometimes be a way for prime ministers to indicate that they are taking action and have a grip of the situation.

In 2020, COBR met 20 times to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic, first meeting in January 2020, before any cases had been recorded in the UK. 19 Calvert J, Arbuthnott G, Leake J, ‘Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster’, The Times, 19 April 2020, retrieved 16 September 2022, www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-38-days-when-britain-sleepwalked-into-disaster-hq3b9tlgh  

Who sits on COBR?

The composition of any COBR meeting will depend on the situation being discussed. It will be a mixture of officials and agency personnel, alongside ministers, from relevant departments and agencies. The meetings are often chaired by the most senior minister in the room, and the prime minister if he or she is attending, but not always.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, did not attend the first five Covid-related COBR meetings in January and February 2020. While Johnson was ill with Covid in late March/early April 2020, then foreign secretary Dominic Raab chaired COBR in his place. Michael Gove, then minister for the Cabinet Office and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, also on occasion chaired COBR meetings, mostly during the second wave of Covid-19 which started in September 2021. 20 Keane D, ‘Omicron: Michael Gove to chair urgent Cobra meeting with leaders of UK’s four nations as variant spreads’, Evening Standard, 10 December 2021, retrieved 16 September 2022, www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/omicron-cobra-covid-michael-gove-uk-cases-b971304.html  

During the Covid-19 pandemic, ministers from the devolved administrations were invited to COBR, although the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, did not attend the first few meetings. Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, was the first leader of a non-national level of government to attend a COBR meeting on Covid-19, on 9 April 2020. 21 Savage M, ‘Boris Johnson has not hosted a Cobra emergency committee for over a month’, The Guardian, 14 June 2020, retrieved 16 September 2022, www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/14/prime-minister-has-not-hosted-a-cobra-emergency-committee-for-over-a-month 

How is COBR supported?

COBR is supported by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS), which is part of the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. The CCS are responsible for high level emergency planning including maintaining the National Risk Register, coordinating cross government resilience and other contingency planning for major emergencies. It was developed following a review of civil contingency preparedness after the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis. They have a standing role to plan for possible emergencies, support ministers through any crisis and then conduct lessons learned on how to improve preparedness.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is a sub-committee of COBR. Chaired by the Chief Scientific Advisor, SAGE provides scientific guidance in emergencies where necessary. This was particularly significant during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Does COBR work well?

Ministers usually speak positively about the crisis machinery of the civil service, including COBR. Former home secretary Alan Johnson praised the way that the machinery swings into action and that officials “don’t panic”. George Eustice was a junior minister in DEFRA during the 2014 floods, when the government was being heavily criticised for lack of action. He said that when local authorities had been caught out by the Christmas break, COBR was an effective means to “give everybody a kind of proverbial kick up the backside and get things moving”.

What are the criticisms of COBR?

Charles Clarke, who was home secretary during the 7 July 2005 terrorist attacks, has warned 22 Haddon C, Political decision-making in a crisis, British Academy Review, October 2010, www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/598/04-Haddon.pdf  that ministers should be careful to avoid COBR meetings "taking up the energies of the key operational people". Lord Blair of Boughton, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, similarly warned that the frequency of COBRA meetings 23 Home Affairs Committee, The Home Office's Response to Terrorist Attacks, January 2010, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmhaff/117/11705.htm could cause problems, especially if they were called at "the whim of the chair". Andy Hayman, former assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, said that government should avoid making COBR meetings too frequent 24 Home Affairs Committee, The Home Office's Response to Terrorist Attacks, January 2010, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmhaff/117/11705.htm  to make sure that operational staff were not "running around servicing meetings but… not actually achieving anything."

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