The British government held an emergency COBRA meeting Tuesday morning in response to the attack at an Ariana Grande concert held at Manchester Arena. Prime minister Theresa May chaired a meeting that started at 9 a.m. UK time, aimed at coordinating the government’s response to an incident that has claimed the lives of 22 people.
“We are working to establish the full details of what is being treated by the police as an appalling terrorist attack,” May said in a statement overnight. “All our thoughts are with the victims and the families of those who have been affected.”
COBRA is an abbreviation for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, as the meetings take place at the Cabinet Office behind the prime minister’s residence of 10 Downing Street. The first meetings were convened to coordinate the government’s response to the 1972 miners’ strike. Since then, meetings have been held to discuss the response to numerous moments of national emergency, the most recent one prior to Tuesday taking place in response to the March 22 Westminster terrorist attack.
“It is a way of ensuring you have got security, intelligence, police, emergency services, whoever you need for the nature of the crisis itself, brought together in one place and communicating very rapidly with one another,” Lord Turnbull, formerly a senior civil servant, told the BBC.
The briefing room has been likened in the past to the White House Situation Room, the 5,525-square-foot room that famously serves as the center point of the United States’ response to crises at home and abroad. COBRA is far more mysterious, though. A Freedom of Information Act request led to the release of a rare insight into what the COBRA room actually looks like:
The list of attendees will depend on why the meeting was called. Intelligence and security agencies may attend, as also may members of the cabinet or senior ministers. The prime minister does not always attend these meetings, so her presence at the Tuesday meeting indicates the severity of the situation.
COBRA developed over time as flaws in the seventies-era system became apparent. The Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 placed a coherent legal framework for dealing with national emergencies, meaning that COBRA could discuss more drastic actions like altering travel restrictions. In practice, though, the meetings are a way to easily coordinate numerous departments, and aren’t necessarily a sign of an emergency — one was held to discuss final preparations for London’s 2012 Olympics.