Andreas Whittam Smith: Our aversion to risk turns civilian heroes into cowards

The first paramedic who turned up on 7/7 said he could not treat the two injured people, because he had to assess what resources were needed
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At 10am tomorrow, at the end of the week which saw Osama bin Laden found and killed, Lady Justice Hallet will deliver her verdicts following the inquests she has conducted into the 52 deaths resulting from the London bombings on 7 July 2005. Since last October, Lady Hallet has listened to the stories of the survivors and the testimonies of the families and friends of the dead. Her handling of these witnesses was exemplary in its sensitive, patient and generous manner. At one point, Lady Hallet told a witness: "Until I started this process, I had no idea that people could survive injuries as horrific as yours. You are amazing, you sound amazing, you look amazing. So thank you very much for coming to tell me about it."

Lady Hallet also heard from officers of MI5 and from staff and managers of the emergency services that attended the incidents. From these exchanges, she is expected to comment on two large questions. Did the security services miss opportunities to prevent the bombers from carrying out their murderous attack? Were lives needlessly lost because of poor management of the emergency services, in particular in the cases of the London Fire Brigade and the London Ambulance Service? I will be more interested in the second of these. For managers of our public services have been infected with an excessive caution that produces perverse results.

For example, Kevin Johnson, a British Transport Police constable, gave evidence that he found two people alive but badly injured after being thrown out of the train by the force of the explosion at Kings Cross. The first paramedic who turned up said he could not treat the two people because he had to assess how many casualties there were and what resources were needed. Mr Johnson said he had to persuade the next two medics who arrived that they should give first aid. "We had a short discussion because they said that they needed to assess. At which point I said 'You don't need all three to assess, one of you could help here'." Finally the paramedics gave the couple morphine and intravenous drips. They later died from their injuries.

It is important to read together the accounts of the timidity sometimes displayed by the emergency services with the stories of heroism shown by some passengers. For when you learn about the jobs of the stricken travellers and the reasons for their journeys on that fatal morning in July six years ago, you see that essentially they are the same sorts of people as members of the emergency services. As individuals, they often acted decisively and courageously. But when wearing the uniforms of the emergency services with important jobs to do, they frequently become clueless and sometimes cowardly. Why is this? My short answer is because their managers make them so.

In another incident some policemen were going down to the Tube platforms to find out what had happened. They passed three firefighters at the top of an escalator who said they needed backup before they could go onto the train tracks. A police constable told the inquest: "They were waiting for a second team, which is normal protocol for them due to communications issues." Christopher Coltart, barrister for seven of the bereaved families, said to him: "The firemen are standing at the top of the escalator watching the injured people come upstairs covered in soot and they have been told of an explosion on the train. But their protocols are preventing them from going into the tunnel until two more fire engines have arrived?" The policeman replied: "I can presume that, yes."

While staffs of the emergency services were hanging back, the story was very different at Edgware Road station. There passengers in a train that pulled up parallel to the bombed one smashed the windows of their train and clambered across the tracks to hurry to the aid of the wounded without regard for their personal safety. Two of them, Anthony Pantling and Sandip Meisuria, tended to Michael Brewster, who had travelled from Derby to attend a meeting. The men gave him water and compressed his chest, before using a necktie to apply a tourniquet around his leg. Despite their efforts Mr Brewster died. Another passenger, Steve Hucklesby, used the train's hand rails to swing across the debris-strewn carriage after hearing shouts for someone to administer first aid. He came across Laura Webb, an accounts manager, and attempted to resuscitate her. She, too, did not survive. Dr Elizabeth Wynne-Evans had arrived at Edgware Road on her way to work as a pathologist at the Royal London Hospital. Upon being told the station was closed, she stayed to treat the escaping injured before going underground to try the same in the carriages. Dr Wynne-Evans did not hang back, neither did she consult protocols.

The big picture is this. About 30 years ago, there was a revolution in attitude to risk. People began to see that with proper analysis and forethought, some disasters could have been avoided and others mitigated. In the first three months of 1974, for instance, the Government introduced a three-day week to limit electricity consumption, and thus conserve coal supplies, which were severely reduced due to industrial action. That was a shock. Nobody had made any preparations for this kind of event, whereas nowadays almost every organisation has prepared what are called business continuity plans.

So far so good, but then the bureaucrats took over. Managers and members of boards who haven't a creative thought in their heads got stuck in. This they could do. Before long, there was a proliferation of risk registers and officers. And so executives, rather than studying how their organisations might do better, are forced to spend an enormous amount of time trying to imagine what could possibly go wrong. The avoidance of risk is preached with a religious fervour. It has become a belief system and woe betide you if you challenge it. But if some people must die as a consequence of the rules, as they did on 7 July 2005, the relatives and friends of the victims will draw no comfort from knowing that in the London Ambulance Service and in the London Fire Brigade everything was done according to the book. Instead they will despair afresh over the tragedy that has befallen them.