999 services impotent against germ attack

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The Independent Online

Official plans for dealing with a chemical or biological terrorist attack are being kept secret from the emergency services who would have to implement them, the Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Local authorities and fire and civil defence chiefs who have approached the Government for information on what they should do to prepare for or tackle a possible attack have been told that it is "classified".

This flies in the face of a report released by the World Health Organisation last week – which calls for "close co-operation" and public information in readiness for an attack – and of the Government's own policy.

In a report released only last month, the Cabinet Office said: "Organisations responsible at local level for dealing with emergencies require information and support from national and regional bodies as appropriate." It calls for "more clearly defined lines of communication."

But the Office – which is in charge of emergency planning – is refusing to part with information even to those who would be closley involved.

Mr Peter Brodie, Executive Director of the Emergency Planning Society, which represents nearly all the professionals in the field, says: "Our members are concerned that they need detailed plans so that they can put them into practice before the circumstances arise. They are pressing the Government for information but so far have been told that it is classified."

He said he understood the need for some confidentiality, but pointed out that as professionals in the field they were used to handling sensitive information.

He thought that there could only be two reasons for the Government's secrecy: Either it did not believe there was an imminent threat, or it knew that it did not have the resources to deal with one.

Mr Patrick Cunningham, chief emergency planning officer at Durham County Council added; "We have had nothing from government with regard to chemical or biological terrorism. When we ask them they say it is secret at the moment."

He added that the Cabinet office said that it would only give information on "a need to know basis". As a result, there were no local authority plans at all for dealing with an incident. But he believed there was a "serious threat".

The Cabinet Office said: "we do not talk about what our plans are because of operational security."