Britain dangerously unprepared for chemical or biological attack

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The Independent Online

Britain's emergency planning officers have warned ministers the country is ill-prepared to cope with a chemical or biological terrorist attack in spite of the heightened fears of such an event after the World Trade Centre atrocity.

A secret meeting in Whitehall was held on Friday to put Britain's emergency services on full alert for the nation to withstand a mass terrorist attack. A new national civil emergencies agency is being set up to handle the threat

However, the Independent on Sunday has learned that emergency planning officers, based at local authorities around Britain, complained that central Government has been denying them any specialist information on how to make contingency plans for chemical or biological attacks.

Their protests raise doubts about whether Britain could cope with a mass attack on the population by terrorists. The Emergency Planning Society, which represents more than 80 per cent of professionals in the field, revealed that Britain's civil defence budget had collapsed from £25.1m in 1991-1992 after the Gulf War to £14.1m in 2000-2001, a fall of 44 per cent.

The number of emergency planning officers has fallen by more than 50 per cent in some cities and counties. Legislation to cope with national disasters and emergencies was last revised in 1948.

The report, commissioned by the Cabinet Office warned the Government that "there is a danger" that emergency planning in England and Wales will degenerate into "a patchwork of inconsistent policies and programmes".

Friday's meeting considered the nation's response to chemical and biological weapons andUK's resilience to mass terrorism. Officials drew up a list of services and supplies without which normal British life could not function. Those attending included London Underground officials, police and fire chiefs, emergency planners, Ministry of Defence staff, Food Standards Agency officials, and security experts from key industries.

Hospitals last week were put on alert and told to upgrade their existing major incident contingency plans. Since the US terrorist attacks, Health Secretary Alan Milburn has set up a contigency planning unit to prepare for mass casualties.