Foreign Office admits its mistakes hindered Asian tsunami relief effort

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Britain's response to the Asian tsunami was hindered by a lack of medical staff on the rescue teams and a rapid response team was sent to the wrong location. The Foreign Office acknowledged the mistakes made in its response to the tsunami in a joint report with the National Audit Office, released yesterday.

The Conservatives urged Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to be held to account for the mistakes. A Tory Shailesh Vara said Mr Straw should explain to MPs "what the mistakes were, why they occurred and most importantly an assurance that they will never be repeated".

Initial information suggested, wrongly, that the worst-hit area was Sri Lanka so the only Foreign Office rapid response team on duty at the time was sent there rather than to Thailand. As a result, reinforcements from London did not arrive in Thailand for almost two weeks, according to the report.

While Germany and France immediately sent medical staff, for the first week the only medics with a British team in Thailand were a doctor, a nurse and a retired counsellor - all local volunteers.

Pressure on embassy staff from Bangkok meant some e-mails were left unopened in the first 24 hours. A plea for help from Britons in the Khao Lak area was not read until 29 December, when assistance was "belatedly" sent.

The shadow International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said: "The staff of the Foreign Office displayed their typical dedication and skill in responding to the tsunami with many working on a voluntary basis. But they were let down by poor co-ordination, weak structures and organisation, and red tape. This led to mistakes that caused unnecessary pain for many British citizens who had lost loved ones."

Responsibility for running the emergency hotline was given to the Metropolitan Police's casualty bureau at Hendon, but the 36 operators could not cope with calls coming in at the rate of 11,000 an hour. More staff were drafted in but many had little experience.

"Foreign Office staff in the region and in London coped tremendously well under severe pressure," the report said. "They worked extremely long hours and made great personal sacrifices in order to provide the professional and humanitarian response that British nationals expected.

"However, the traumatic circumstances and the need to make immediate vital decisions, often based on little or confused information, proved very testing. Mistakes were made and unintended insensitivity shown in certain cases.

"Officials could have benefited from more training to deal with this kind of emergency."

The Commons Leader Geoff Hoon said: "You are being somewhat harsh on the Foreign Office and the work that they did in response to the tsunami.

"The NAO is certainly critical of certain aspects but overall makes clear that there was a significant response and very effective response on behalf of the United Kingdom."

The Foreign Office has now commissioned the Zito Trust to carry out a survey of Britons affected by the tsunami in an effort to assess what further improvements could be made.

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