'Draconian' cordons after biological strike would not stop infection spreading, say MPs

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The Independent Online

Cordons imposed by armed police on roads to stop the spread of infection after a biological or chemical strike have been criticised as "draconian" and unworkable by MPs and pressure groups.

Cordons imposed by armed police on roads to stop the spread of infection after a biological or chemical strike have been criticised as "draconian" and unworkable by MPs and pressure groups.

Ministers have paved the way for the enforcement of emergency health cordons to be supported by military units drawn from a new 7,000-strong force made up of Territorial Army reservists, which is expected to be operational early next year.

Opposition MPs said the measures could fail because infections would spread quickly over large distances before cordons could be set up. Liberty, a civil liberties group, said they should be used only in extreme circumstances and subject to a time limit that would need a judicial warrant to be extended. Roger Bingham of Liberty added: "We would be concerned if the Government was looking to extend its easy access to emergency powers beyond extreme conditions like biological attack."

Police already have powers to evacuate areas or impose cordons under anti-terrorism legislation introduced in 2000. But they do not have the legal power to cordon off areas for health reasons, even after a terrorist attack.

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said this was being reviewed as part of a new civil contingencies Bill. "There are legal issues around the setting up of health cordons and keeping people in and out of them. The law may need to be tightened in this area," she said. The new law would be supported by a Civil Contingencies Reaction Force being established by the Ministry of Defence. Units of 500 soldiers will be posted in 14 locations under the command of county constabularies.

The Liberal Democrat MP Edward Davey said: "The public must be reassured that people who are cordoned off will get the help they need. These ... laws could only be acceptable if the proper decontamination and recovery services are guaranteed."

The Department of Health has stockpiled 60 million doses of the smallpox vaccine, enough to inoculate the nation, but the Government is not going ahead with a widespread pre-emptive vaccination programme although GPs have been told how to spot the disease in its early stages.

Liam Fox, shadow Health Secretary, said the time between infection and visible symptoms meant that a disease could carry over large distances before it was detected. "As stocks [of vaccines] increase, the public should be allowed to opt for immunisation at their convenience," he said.

Police, emergency services and hospitals will join an exercise testing London's ability to cope with a terrorist strike next month.

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