BRITISH forces in the Gulf will today be advised to take vaccinations against the possible use of anthrax by Iraq.

George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, yesterday took the anthrax jab himself to allay fears about the safety of the vaccine.

Mr Robertson has written to the 3,500 personnel in the Gulf saying that he understands their concerns over the illnesses that struck down many who served in the last Gulf war, but that he strongly advises them to have the vaccination. He stressed that the decision to offer the vaccinations did not mean that Saddam Hussein was expected to deliver an imminent biological weapons attack.

But in his letter to those serving in Operation Bolton in the Gulf, Mr Robertson said: "While we currently judge the threat of [Saddam] using such weapons as low, we cannot be wholly certain that this will not change in the future."

Senior Ministry of Defence forces said that the reason for the decision was that an independent medical advisory group, which Mr Robertson has recently set up, had advised him that the vaccine was safe and that it should be given to the Gulf forces, who could be in the region for months while United Nations resolutions on weapons inspections are being enforced.

The United States and Canada have reached similar conclusions and both also announced yesterday that their forces serving in the Gulf are to be given anthrax vaccine.

Since 1976, 55,000 doses of anthrax vaccine have been given in Britain, mainly to vets, and only 18 people have reported minor side-effects.

But during the Gulf conflict in 1990-91 the vaccine was given in combination with a whooping cough vaccine which was designed to speed up its effects. At the same time, troops were bombarded with a wide range of other inoculations and thousands have since become ill.

MoD sources yesterday admitted that mistakes had been made during the last conflict in terms of the secrecy which surrounded the vaccine programme, and the poor record-keeping of which jabs had been administered.

Unlike in 1991, when troops were led to believe the jabs were compulsory, the new anthrax programme will be voluntary.