Gulf syndrome doctor quits

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The military doctor heading the Government's medical assessment programme into Gulf War syndrome has left after criticism from veterans, it was announced last night.

Lieutenant Colonel Banu Bhatt replaced Group Captain Bill Coker, who had been involved in the investigations since the start of the inquiry in 1993, earlier this year. But there had been many complaints about Lt Col Bhatt's work from veterans which culminated in public criticism in the House of Lords last week.

The Countess of Mar, who has championed the veterans' cause in the Lords, said many did not want to return because they were unhappy about the nature of the programme and did not believe the Lt Col was sufficiently concerned about their welfare.

Dr John Reid, armed forces minister, said Lt Col Bhatt had left at his own request. He added that he deeply regretted that Lt Col Bhatt had felt "unable to continue his work" and the criticisms that had been levelled against him. He thanked him for his "conscientious and committed work" during what he described as a very demanding period.

Dr Reid acknowledged that the departure of Group Captain Coker from the programme had been a "source of disquiet" to many veterans. He was removed from the medical programme before Easter and moved to Washington but yesterday it was announced that he will return to a new ministerial advisory unit.

Although he will continue his present post in Washington, Grp Cpt Coker will return regularly to Britain for discussions to help oversee the MoD's response to veterans' health concerns.

Dr Reid said: "I am very pleased indeed that he has agreed to return to the UK regularly for discussions. I am sure this will be widely welcomed by the veterans and it is a further signal of this Government's intention to deal positively and openly with this issue."

Major Ian Hill, chairman of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, said: "I am highly delighted at this decision.

"He has so much expertise and there is no doubt he is the man for the job. His role will be crucial at a time when lots of research and information is coming in."

The new MoD advisory group will include the Surgeon General, Air Marshal John Baird, and the head of the Gulf Veterans Illness Unit, Mike Tonnison. Other members will be co-opted from time to time.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said a new head of medical assessment would be appointed in due course and a civilian doctor will take over on a temporary basis for now.