BBC prepares secret scripts for possible use in winter blackouts

Exclusive: Scripts set out how corporation will reassure public in event of major power loss

The BBC has prepared secret scripts that could be read on air if energy shortages cause blackouts or the loss of gas supplies this winter.

The scripts, seen by the Guardian, set out how the corporation would reassure the public in the event that a “major loss of power” causes mobile phone networks, internet access, banking systems or traffic lights to fail across England, Wales and Scotland. Northern Ireland would be unaffected because its electricity grid is shared with the Republic of Ireland.

The public would be advised to use car radios or battery-powered receivers to listen to emergency broadcasts on FM and long-wave frequencies usually reserved for Radio 2 and Radio 4.

One draft BBC script warns that a blackout could last for up to two days, with hospitals and police placed under “extreme pressure”.

Another says: “The government has said it’s hoped power will be restored in the next 36 to 48 hours. Different parts of Britain will start to receive intermittent supplies before then.”

It is understood they were written by BBC journalists as part of routine emergency planning to deal with hypothetical scenarios. They include local details for the different regions and nations of Britain.

In a national emergency, the BBC has a formal role in helping to spread information across the country, as part of the government’s civil contingencies planning. The broadcaster’s governance framework states: “If it appears to any UK government minister that an emergency has arisen, that minister may request that the BBC broadcast or otherwise distribute any announcement or other programme.”

The government works with the BBC as part of its emergency planning process, although it is unclear whether it had any input on these scripts. A spokesperson said: “The government is confident that this is not a scenario we will face this winter.”

The BBC said it did not comment on its emergency broadcasting plans.

Ministers have been at pains to reassure businesses and householders that blackouts are unlikely. However, National Grid, which oversees electricity supplies in Great Britain, has issued a rare warning that power supplies could be at risk. The organisation said that in a worst-case scenario it could order planned blackouts for up to three hours a day if Russia cuts off all gas supplies to Europe.

On Monday, National Grid’s chief executive, John Pettigrew, went further and said that if everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong, there could be rolling blackouts between 4pm and 7pm on “really, really cold” days in January and February, when wind speeds are too low to power turbines.

The BBC’s draft scenario suggests that in a national blackout it would run a greatly reduced temporary radio service from the UK’s emergency broadcasting centre, called the EBC, based in a rural location not acknowledged by the BBC.

This would provide half-hourly news bulletins on Radio 4’s FM and long-wave frequencies and a “music service”, with news updates on the FM spectrum used by Radio 2.

One scenario used in some of the scripts assumes that mains electricity is available in only a few lightly populated parts of Scotland – the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, and some parts of the Highlands.

The draft scripts for on-air news bulletins include space for a quote from a Cabinet Office minister, given the fictitious name Jose Riera.

The scripts report that these blackouts would affect gas supply systems, and knock out mobile phone networks, cashpoints and internet access. Traffic lights would stop working, causing disruption on the roads.

One script, written for a hypothetical news bulletin, warns: “The emergency services are under extreme pressure. People are being advised not to contact them unless absolutely necessary.”

It states that in Wales an emergency coordination centre has been set up, while in Scotland the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is chairing the devolved government’s emergency planning meeting. It adds: “Officials are saying there is no current risk to food supply and distribution. But they’re asking people to look out for vulnerable neighbours and relatives.”

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