Emergencies in the UK

Updated 2021-09-14 13:34

Finding yourself in an emergency (e.g. medical emergency, accident, crime, flooding, fire, infectious disease, etc.) while being an expat in the UK is possible. Hence, knowing what steps to take in the case of an emergency situation can potentially save your or other people's lives. It's important first to assess the situation with as little panic as possible, prioritise your own safety before you try to assist others, and get help before offering first aid.

Call 999 for an ambulance, fire, the police and coastguard

The 999 number is known as the world's oldest emergency telephone number. It was launched in London in 1937. Dialling 999 will take you to four emergency control centres (i.e. police, ambulance, fire, coastguard) to select the most relevant to your emergency. You must call 999 immediately, for example, in a medical emergency, if someone is seriously ill or injured and their life is at risk. Such medical emergencies are loss of consciousness, severe bleeding, serious burns (e.g. from chemicals), severe allergy symptoms such as anaphylaxis, and chest pain and shortness of breath, which could be signalling a heart attack. Also, if you get involved or witness a serious road traffic accident, a stabbing, a shooting, or a fall from height, react as soon as possible and call 999.

The person on the other side of the line will ask you some questions such as your location, phone number, and a short description of the incident to be able to respond as quickly as possible. While you are waiting for the emergency response, try to stay calm and call the ambulance service again if you notice changes in the patient's condition. When the paramedics arrive, think of whether you can ease their work by providing information on the patient's medical history or known allergies.

Good to know:

If you have a speech impediment or hearing impairment, sign up to the emergency SMS service by texting ‘register' to 999 and following the instructions. To reach 999, you don't need credit or a signal. If you remain silent during a 999 call, you will still be sent help, as long as you enter ‘55,' which informs call respondents that talking could worsen your situation.

Useful links:

Register your phone with the emergency SMS

Call 111

If you are in an emergency situation but aren't sure how severe it is or what to do, call the NHS's number 111 for urgent medical help. The trained adviser who will answer your phone call will ask you questions about your or the patient's symptoms and advise you accordingly. They will book an arrival time for you at an A&E, connect you to a nurse, or guide you through self-care.

Good to know:

111 is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you don't speak English, you can ask for a translator.


For an ambulance, call directly 112.

Useful links:

Answer symptoms-related questions

Go to A&E

An Accident and Emergency department operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and deals with life-threatening emergencies, such as loss of consciousness, chest pain, breathing difficulties, severe bleeding, allergic reactions, severe burns, stroke, and major trauma. The procedure for arriving at the A&E alone is different from being driven by ambulance. First, you will have to register at reception and answer a few questions. Then, you will go through the preliminary assessment (triage) for the medical practitioner to determine the urgency and nature of your treatment. Bear in mind that if your condition isn't critical, you may have to wait up to four hours at the A&E before a doctor sees you while other patients with more severe symptoms are being treated.


Not all hospitals have an A&E department. You can use the search link to find the closest A&E near you.

Good to know:

Some hospitals have a separate A&E department dedicated to children's care.


With NHS login, you have access to online services, including your medical records.

Visit an urgent treatment centre

Urgent treatment centres, also known as walk-in centres or minor injury units, are established for less severe and non-life-threatening medical emergencies such as sprains and strains, bites and stings, ear and throat infections, stomach pains, and emergency contraception. Urgent treatment centres are complementary to GP and A&E services without replacing any of the two. To be seen, you don't have to register or book an appointment? you can walk in and present your symptoms.

Emergency powers

Emergency powers date back to ancient Rome and refer to extraordinary (but temporary) measures that may affect fundamental rights (e.g. freedom of movement) in the name of resolving a crisis (e.g. COVID-19). Emergency powers are governments' last resource, and they are administered only in exceptional circumstances during which rapid response is required for the public good. In the case of emergency powers, the government can make regulations without an act of parliament and take actions that it wouldn't normally be allowed to take. Hence, sometimes the Public Health Act 1984 is in conflict with the Human Rights Act because the former dictates measures that can be against human rights (e.g. the right to protest). However, it's essential to understand that the measures dictated by the Public Health Act and the Coronavirus Act are time-limited and used with care, and are proportionate to the threat of human health.

COVID-19 considerations:

Most of the powers (e.g. three lockdowns between March 2020 and January 2021, quarantines, schools' closure, etc.) used by the government have been based on the pre-existing Public Health (Control of Disease Act) 1984 and the new Coronavirus Act 2020, which allows the government to take additional measures to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and slow the spread of the virus. For example, the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows the police and immigration officials to detain an individual who may be infectious. Also, it has allowed for temporary changes in the delivery of public services.

The British Red Cross

The British Red Cross offers support to people and communities across the UK affected by a regional or national emergency (e.g. fire) and helps them maintain their dignity and recover as soon as possible. The role of the British Red Cross is "auxiliary" by law, meaning that it supports the UK government's function and helps authorities coordinate and meet public humanitarian needs during crises. Hence, the British Red Cross is neither a governmental nor a non-governmental organisation - it's a private organisation with public functions.

Good to know:

The British Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement with millions of members and volunteers in 192 countries.

Work duties during an emergency

You can ask for time off work if you or your dependant is involved in an emergency situation such as mental or physical illness. Also, if you or your dependant's pre-existing conditions are worsening or you have to take care of someone who went through a traumatic event (e.g. mugging). Last but not least, if your child has been injured or suspended from school, you can ask for time off work.

Emergency tips

Of course, it's not advisable to leave your life as if something terrible will happen at any moment, but preparing for an emergency and having an emergency plan can save your and other people's lives. Whether you live alone or with your family, create a household emergency plan, including a "grab bag" with essential items (e.g. a torch, money, water, a phone charger, copies of documents, etc.) should you ever need to rush outside the house in an emergency. Also, suppose there's an emergency, and you cannot leave the house for a few days. In that case, store bottled drinking water, non-perishable food, a first aid kit, and baby and pet supplies somewhere in the house. In serious emergency situations such as flooding, fire, or bomb warning, the local councils in the UK provide temporary shelter to evacuees in emergency rest centres (i.e. schools, leisure sports centres, churches, etc.).

Last but not least, consider having an "emergency friend," even though it may be pretty challenging when you are a freshly arrived expat in the UK. Emergency friends are usually neighbours, relatives, or someone you trust with a spare set of your house keys, so they can look after your pet if you are not at home or babysit your children in the event of a work or family emergency.

We do our best to provide accurate and up to date information. However, if you have noticed any inaccuracies in this article, please let us know in the comments section below.