Whitehall prepares for winter blackouts with carbon-paper copying

Civil servants will reproduce documents using carbon paper if Britain is hit by energy blackouts this winter under emergency plans stress tested in Whitehall in recent days.

Carbon paper was invented in 1806 and was used in typewriters before it was largely superseded by photocopying and then email.

But officials have been advised to keep carbon paper on standby in Whitehall departments in case Britain is hit with power cuts that leave offices without power for days on end, according to three officials.

“The idea is you’d have people running up and down Whitehall handing out carbon copies of documents to colleagues at other departments or agencies, to keep people in touch,” said one official. “This is all about addressing concerns over how to keep the government communicating with each other in the event of a crisis.”

The use of carbon paper is one element of an exercise carried out in the last week in some departments to stress test how the government could keep functioning in the event of a crisis such as an energy blackout or nuclear war.

Spiralling international gas prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have caused an energy crisis across Europe, prompting fears of shortages during the coming winter.

Officials set up a cross-government programme called Yarrow in 2021 to improve planning and resilience by central and local government and industry for dealing with a national power outage. Officials insisted that the plans were in place before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “This programme predates those events,” said one.

Since then the stress-testing exercises have been taking place every four months to ensure “appropriate risk management and preparedness”. Yet officials conceded that the war-gaming exercises had taken on a new urgency given the worsening energy crisis, which has seen household energy bills jump 80 per cent in a year.

The government has drawn up what it calls a “reasonable” worst-case scenario involving cold weather and lower energy imports from Norway, under which the UK faces an electricity shortfall of up to a sixth of peak demand. Officials believe that if this occurred, without rationing there could be days of energy blackouts in the depths of the winter.

Although Britain has its own North Sea gas reserves and is not dependent on Russian energy imports, it has relatively low levels of gas storage.

Under the scenario the government may have to trigger emergency measures to conserve gas, according to an official. Downing Street has insisted that “households, businesses and industry can be confident they will get the electricity and gas they need”.

Liz Truss, the frontrunner to win the Tory leadership contest, has ruled out any energy rationing this winter. But Gavin Barwell, former Downing Street chief of staff, said it was “crazy” to exclude the possibility of rationing non-domestic use to protect vulnerable people.

Rishi Sunak, Truss’s rival to become next prime minister, has also said the government should not rule out energy rationing. “Many European countries are looking at how we can all optimise our energy usage, that is a sensible thing for us to be doing as a country,” he said during the final leadership hustings this week.

A government spokesperson said the cross-Whitehall exercise would ensure that central government could respond effectively to a “wide range of extreme scenarios”, no matter how unlikely.

“The UK’s secure and diverse energy supplies will ensure households, businesses and industry can be confident they can get the electricity and gas they need,” they said.

 

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