How safe are we ?

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The Independent Online

Britain is in the grip of a "phoney war". We are on high alert, with security and civil defence precautions not seen since wartime being introduced, and the emergency services braced for a possible terrorist attack. The public, meantime, is alternating between making preparations such as stockpiling food and bottled water, and sentiment: escapist films are drawing cinema-goers and romantics are rushing to send their beloveds flowers.

Britain is in the grip of a "phoney war". We are on high alert, with security and civil defence precautions not seen since wartime being introduced, and the emergency services braced for a possible terrorist attack. The public, meantime, is alternating between making preparations such as stockpiling food and bottled water, and sentiment: escapist films are drawing cinema-goers and romantics are rushing to send their beloveds flowers.

In London, 1,500 more police are on the streets as a visible reassurance and deterrent. Security at nuclear installations has been tightened, new anti-terrorism powers are being drafted and plans updated for coping with terrorist attacks using chemical or biological weapons. These plans were discussed at an emergency Cabinet Office meeting on Friday, and include setting up a new national emergency planning agency.

The so-called "ring of steel" around the City of London – a network of permanent police checkpoints, blocked roads and CCTV cameras surrounding the capital's financial centre – is back in operation. Police are stepping up searches of vehicles, and the first arrests of suspected terrorists has already begun.

Just how safe – or at risk – we are remains a matter of guesswork. Neither the police nor the Security Service (MI5) has received specific threats or intelligence about imminent attacks, only the generalised warnings from Osama bin Laden's confederates about retaliation against US allies.

Despite the visible police presence and tightened security, the official alert status has actually fallen by one notch since the US attacks on 11 September, when air flights over central London were temporarily banned and police guards surrounded the Canary Wharf office complex east of the City.

Security experts believe that Britain is one of the best-prepared and most experienced countries in dealing with "conventional" terrorist attacks after 30 years of IRA and other crimes. We have some of the toughest anti-terrorist legislation and security measures in Europe. Both MI5 and MI6 have a list of suspects under round-the-clock surveillance and stepped-up immigration checks at all British ports and airports. Arrests have already been made.

These controls will intensify. European Union leaders agreed last week on new anti-terrorism measures, such as fast-track extradition within the union, fuller intelligence cooperation, a pooling of suspect identities, pan-European arrest warrants, new powers to seize terrorists' assets, and a new anti-terrorism division in Europol, the EU's joint police intelligence agency.

But there are major doubts about Britain's ability to defend itself against the most extreme threat of all: an attack using chemical or biological weapons. The civil defence budgets have been slashed by 44 per cent, from £25m to £14m, in the 10 years since the end of the Cold War. The numbers of emergency planning officers employed by local councils have fallen by half in some cities.

Emergency planners have also been denied detailed information by ministers about contingency arrangements for chemical or biological attack. That has left the officials reliant on their own, albeit highly organised, planning for chemical spills or chemical plant explosions. A recent Cabinet Office document, "The Future of Emergency Planning in England and Wales", admits that "there is a danger" that such planning will degenerate into "a patchwork of inconsistent policies and programmes". It says the legislation used to deal with national emergencies, the Civil Defence Act 1948, is "out of date and should be replaced".

Despite the gloomy analysis, emergency services have held two exercises in the past two years focused on chemical or biological attacks. The Home Office and Department of Health set up Exercise Misty Scene last year to examine responses to an anthrax attack, such as inoculations and hospital treatment. The chemical warfare plant at Porton Down has resumed anthrax vaccine production. According to Nigel Lightfoot, northern director of the Public Health Laboratory Service, that has left the authorities well prepared.

British shops are reporting a run on survival equipment such as gasmasks and water-purification tablets. One army surplus shop in south-east London has sold 10 times as many gasmasks as usual. "I'm sure it's in response to what happened in New York," said the manager of Mad Mike's Army Store. Other items now popular in outdoor leisure shops are chlorine tablets, and first-aid kits. Andy Penney, duty manager of Blacks Outdoor Leisure in central London, said demand was at its highest immediately after the attack. "We sold a great deal to companies such as CNN because they're right next door to us and they were buying them in bulk."

Security companies report an increase in inquiries as businesses prepare of terrorist attacks. But fears of an armaggedon have turned people's thoughts to loved ones. BT said international calls rose dramatically last week.

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