Preparing to face the Unthinkable

The Home Front: 1 Preparing to face the Unthinkable
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The Independent Online

Without a shot being fired, the war on terrorism is permeating every aspect of life in Britain. Here 'Indepndent on Sunday' writers consider our state of readiness, our hopes and our fears as we inch ever closer to conflict

FOR THE first time, the unthinkable seems possible. There are increasing fears that terrorists may resort to using chemical and biological weapons – and that Britain may be a target.

Hospitals would have to be ready to cope; a chain of command would have to be in place; the public would have to kept informed as to what to do, and the emergency services primed. But none of that seems likely. Inquiries by The Independent on Sunday suggest that we lag behind internationally recommended standards for dealing with an attack. Last week a report rushed out by the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the effects could rival "even the life-destroying potential of nuclear weapons", while Peter Hain, the minister for Europe, warned that Osama bin Laden was preparing "high-impact terrorist attacks" in the next weeks. The Prime Minister has said that terrorists want to use chemical and biological weapons and Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has acknowledged that Britain appears to be the biggest target after the US.

Add to the mix the ominous news that the hijackers investigated crop spraying planes, the ideal way of dispersing the weapons over a wide area, and it is clear why concern is rising. Rising, it seems, everywhere except in Whitehall, where there appears to be an ominous complacency and a familiar obsession with secrecy.

Getting ready is essential; the WHO report says that good emergency plans "considerably reduce" the risk. But just a week before the outrage, Sir William Stewart, the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, warned that Britain was poorly prepared to cope with a biological attack. Sir William – a former chief scientific adviser to the Government – has since refused to elaborate on his remarks, but it looks as if he was right. For it appears that Britain falls short of the WHO's requirements in having a clear chain of command, on co-operating with the emergency services, and on preparing doctors, nurses and the general public for what to do in the event of an attack.

The WHO report says that a single aircraft could threaten an area of "thousands of square kilometres" with biological weapons and "up to the order of 100,000 square kilometres" with chemical ones. The results could be "beyond the capacity of the healthcare system to cope". It stresses that developing and using the weapons "present considerable difficulties" but warns that, if terrorists were able to overcome them, "the consequences could be great".

Chemical and biological attacks would require different responses. A chemical weapon would be likely to cause immediate casualties and its effects would be tackled initially by the emergency services. But the effects of a biological one might not show up for days or weeks as the disease incubates; by this time its victims could have spread out widely.

They would probably first be picked up by GPs and hospitals. In both cases, says the report, the risk is "considerably reduced by the mere presence of an effective ability to manage an incident. If an aggressor knows that an attack will be quickly and effectively dealt with, the attraction to perpetrate an incident will be considerably diminished". Yet, it goes on: "A state that elects not to introduce biological and chemical defensive and protective abilities could be vulnerable to the full mass-casualty-producing potential of biological and chemical weapons." It is, of course, impossible to evaluate Britain's contingency plans fully, as they are kept secret. But it seems that they do not match up in several key areas.

The WHO report says that it is crucial that "overall command" in tackling an incident is "allocated to an individual who is able to exert the necessary authority over the various parties involved".

Yet no government minister is responsible. Instead a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, reporting to Tony Blair, is in control. In London there is confusion. "Conversations" are taking place between Ken Livingstone, the Mayor, and ministers over who should be in charge. Other candidates are David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and Nick Raynsford, the minister for London.

The report stresses the importance of "close co-operation" with local authorities and emergency services. It says that local officials will need to have plans ready before any incident occurs and that authorities "should be encouraged to make maximum use of existing emergency response resources". Yet, as we report today, plans for tackling a chemical or biological attack are being kept secret from local councils and emergency services. As a result, says Patrick Cunningham, chief emergency planning officer at Durham County Council, local authorities have no plans for dealing with an incident. The Cabinet Office is working with police forces, which have prepared plans, and says that the Metropolitan Police would handle an incident in London. But the Association of Chief Police Officers says that help would be needed from local councils and emergency services.

The WHO concludes that the public needs to be told what do "well before any threat materialises". A "well-constructed media plan" is "essential". Yet such is the secrecy surrounding the plans that no information has been given to the public. By contrast, says Mr Cunningham, other nations are "more open", and people know what to do in an emergency.

Training must be given to doctors and nurses on how to recognise and treat the effects of an attack, the report says; this would be particularly important after a biological attack, where initial symptoms would resemble flu, and the cause would be hard to detect. They might also have to be immunised – well in advance – and medicines would need to be stockpiled.

The Department of Health said that preparations were being made at "a senior management level", stockpiles were being reviewed, and hospitals had been put on readiness for receiving mass casualties. But doctors and nurses had not been given training because there was "no specific threat" of an attack.

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