Worried families deserve better from the Foreign Office

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The Independent Online

Set beside the scale of the catastrophe in South-east Asia, the inadequacies of the Foreign Office emergency helpline over a long holiday weekend may seem the merest of details. But for Britons and foreigners resident in this country who fear they might have a friend or relative caught up in a major disaster abroad, the Foreign Office is their first port of call, and they deserved a much better service than they received in the 36 hours after reports of the tsunami first reached the news.

That the number of phone lines fell so far short, to the point where - at most - one in four calls was getting through, may have reflected the difficulty of bringing staff in to work on Boxing Day or an underestimation of the likely demand. The response of officials, however, was not to apologise but to blame someone else: ignorant and irresponsible callers, no less, who should have known better than to clog the emergency helpline when what they wanted was travel advice, airline timetables or some other "non-emergency" information.

In fact, this distinction simply highlights the gulf between the neatly compartmentalised world of Whitehall and the desperation of relatives dialling and redialling in search of reliable information. If officials publish the number of a single emergency helpline, it should not be beyond their wit also to sort the calls and redirect less urgent ones. Commercial concerns do this all the time.

There is surely scope, too, for more imaginative high-tech solutions. Round-the-clock news channels and websites have performed an admirable service by posting brief phone and text messages and e-mails from those reporting in safe. Could the Foreign Office not provide a similar service on its website in response to a disaster abroad?

The most worrying aspect of this débâcle, however, is that although the helpline is under the auspices of the Foreign Office, the actual destination for calls is the Metropolitan Police's new state-of-the-art Central Casualty Bureau, which was summoned into live operation for the first time. Opened three months ago to field enquiries after a disaster with mass casualties, the bureau has hardly covered itself in glory when its first real emergency struck.