'Take shelter, close doors and windows and stay indoors'

The Government's plans for biological or chemical attack make chilling reading
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Government has long had plans to deal with the sort of mass emergency that might be caused by a biological attack. But the prospect of it happening was so remote that few of us gave much thought to what they might entail. Events in America since 11 September have brought home the reality, and the document obtained by The Independent on Sunday admits that "these plans have been stepped up [and] revised".

The Government has long had plans to deal with the sort of mass emergency that might be caused by a biological attack. But the prospect of it happening was so remote that few of us gave much thought to what they might entail. Events in America since 11 September have brought home the reality, and the document obtained by The Independent on Sunday admits that "these plans have been stepped up [and] revised".

The Threat

The document warns that attack could take various forms. It would be "particularly dangerous" if it targeted major population centres or enclosed areas (such as offices, shopping centres, Tube stations or sports arenas). It could infect food and water supplies, and even take weeks to emerge, and "may have the potential to cause serious harm and disruption over a wide geographical area".

Different strategies would be required for chemical and biological attacks. A chemical release could take less than 60 seconds, and would need an immediate "lights and sirens" response. Some chemicals could be "delivered" as vapour or aerosol, and cause poisoning by inhalation, which will be relatively fast acting. Others may be liquid, which could pose a skin or inhalation hazard. But contamination of food or water "cannot be ruled out". Biological attack could take days to emerge and could be hard to detect.

The most crucial factors are the ability of some agents such as smallpox and plague – but not anthrax – to spread from person to person and early detection of the disease. "Unless the release is announced, detection and minimisation of casualties will be dependent upon early identification of unusual patterns of illness by doctors and laboratories."

Separate advice sent to doctors and hospitals by the Public Health Laboratory Service says every unexplained case of severe fever should be reported, and that just a single case of anthrax, smallpox, plague or rare forms of botulism, should be regarded as indicating a terrorist attack.

Who's in charge?

In direct contrast to normal civil disasters, where local police and councils take charge, ministers would take immediate control from the Cabinet Office briefing room (Cobra) in Whitehall, by invoking national emergency plans and bringing in the military. The level of central control would be on a scale unseen in peacetime – involving senior officials from across government.

The Home Secretary would appoint a government liaison officer, who would represent Cobra and lead a team involving the Home Office, the Cabinet Office, civil contingencies secretariat, Foreign Office, Department of Health, Ministry of Defence, Crown Prosecution Service and MI5.

The local police commander would remain in operational control, setting up his HQ at a main police station where the government liaison team, fire brigade, ambulance, military bomb disposal and bio-warfare experts from Porton Down would also be based. The document warns that in the early stages of an attack the council and police may not have the necessary expertise. They may have to wait until Porton Down experts and detection and protection equipment arrived.

The response

In any attack, the document warns, the emergency services would be faced with a series of major problems, including mass panic. Casualty departments doctors' surgeries, mortuaries, and decontamination facilities are likely to be overwhelmed.

Cordons would be set up around the area of attack. But unless there is a major, immediate threat to their safety, unaffected residents, office and shop workers will be told to "take shelter, close doors, windows and stay in" until the threat has passed.

The risks of evacuation, with panic and traffic paralysis, could far outweigh the risks of staying indoors.

Ensuring emergency personnel and the public are decontaminated would be a further headache. It would be needed as close to the incident site as possible to avoid further contamination. But specialist facilities could be easily overstretched, forcing the use of temporary buildings and even just hosing people down in the street.

Emergency services and councils are warned they could need emergency mortuaries and body holding areas as well as, emergency housing for evacuees and inflatable shelters.

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