Explainer: what is COBRA?

David Cameron chairing a COBRA meeting in 2014. Neil Hall / PA Archive/Press Association Images

As reports came in of the terrorist strikes in Brussels, which were subsequently claimed by Islamic State, it was also reported that in response David Cameron was to convene a COBRA emergency meeting to consider the developing security situation in Brussels.

At 9am the prime minister’s Twitter feed noted that he would be chairing a meeting of COBRA later in the morning, underlining how seriously he and his government were taking the situation and concerns that there may be similar attacks on British soil.

But what is COBRA? The name itself perhaps evokes images of the very rapid response of a striking cobra, but it is just an acronym for one of the venues where the COBRA committee meets: Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. However, convening it can give the impression that the state is operating effectively and rapidly in response to a crisis.

The COBRA committee does not always meet in the same place due to security concerns; it has several secure sites where meetings may take place. It is the United Kingdom’s emergency response team which meets in response to crises, including but not limited to, terrorist strikes (for example, it met in response to the Cumbria flooding in 2015).

COBRA has ordered increased security at ports, airports, Tube stations and international railway stations. Chris Radburn / PA Wire/Press Association Images

COBRA will normally meet in response to a terrorist attack, whether or not it is in the UK. So the group met in relation to the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings in London, the November 2015 attacks in Paris and the Tunisian attacks in 2015. It is mainly a way of ensuring that security, intelligence, police, emergency services (or whoever is needed due to the specific crisis) are all brought together in one place and can communicate very rapidly with each other. It coordinates the roles of government agencies in responding to crises because it covers issues that cross departmental boundaries within government.

The membership of the committee is variable and depends on the nature of the crisis in question. It will usually include the prime minister, if he or she is available, police representatives, senior ministers, the head of MI5, the police, members of the civil contingencies secretariat and civil servants at the head of the departments affected. In the prime minister’s absence, the home secretary will usually chair the meeting especially when issues of national security are under discussion.

Crisis management

The COBRA team may meet a number of times in response to a particular crisis and can invoke emergency powers. That includes examining whether to invoke the powers contained in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 – legislation which provides the state with significant extra powers in times of a serious emergency. These include requisitioning property, restricting the movement of people and setting up special courts.

This law provided a unified framework setting out the responsibilities of local authorities in responding to a major incident, including a large-scale terrorist strike – as in July 2005. Emergency planning allows ministers, security services, emergency and health service officials to execute very rapidly a highly structured emergency strategy. The overall response to an emergency is directed by COBRA.

In this instance the strategy to be discussed by COBRA will relate at least in part to a further stepping up of security at certain places likely to be targets, and the drafting in of extra police officers. Security is already being stepped up at transport hubs and major airports, iconic sites and other crowded places. COBRA will consider the cross-government responses to the changed security situation in response to the Brussels attacks.