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Last Updated

16 Nov 2002

Source: New York Times, November 16, 2002.

Jittery Britain to Advise Public How to React to Terror Attacks


LONDON, Nov. 15 Britain will start an education campaign using posters, mock-emergency drills and other devices to advise the public about how to respond to a biological or chemical attack, the government's chief medical officer said today.

A report by the National Audit Office published on Thursday found that many of Britain's state-run hospitals and ambulance services do not have adequate plans or sufficient equipment in place to deal with an assault involving chemical, nuclear, biological or radiological weapons, or one with casualties of 500 people or more.

"However disturbing it may be for some, we must take up the challenge and the unprecedented step of giving the public more `protect and serve' information," said Sir Liam Donaldson, the medical officer. "It is impossible to guard against all the potential risks but simple procedural advice could save lives."

The posters, which are likely to be distributed next year, might contain advice about what to do in a poison-gas attack, such as the advisability of getting away from the gas while leaving other casualties in the hands of emergency workers; not breathing too deeply, or using handkerchiefs as improvised gas masks, Sir Liam said.

In a series of interviews with British news organizations, Sir Liam has sought to allay concerns about Britain's possible lack of preparedness for a large-scale terrorist attack.

The report on Thursday said that the situation is particularly acute in London, where more than 20 percent of the hospitals surveyed for the report said they were unprepared for a large-scale biological attack.

A third of the hospitals surveyed, and half of the ambulance services, said they did not have proper protective equipment or decontamination facilities for health-care workers who might be caught up in such an emergency.

John Lister, director of London Health Emergency, a lobbying group, said the city would find itself helpless in the face of an attack like the recent siege on a theater in Moscow, which left hundreds of people needing intensive medical treatment to counter the effects of the poison gas used to end the standoff.

"The authorities needed hundreds of intensive-care beds to cope with the victims of the gas," Mr. Lister told The Evening Standard. "If something like that happened in London, we simply wouldn't have those beds in place, or the facilities or the training to cope."

Prime Minister Tony Blair added to the general jitteriness here by warning earlier this week that Britain should be on heightened alert for a terrorist attack. Nor did the recent audiotape featuring the probable voice of Osama bin Laden, and carrying a raft of warnings for Britain and other countries allied with the United States, help matters much in a country nervous, however obliquely, that it might be the next target.

All this has left the government trying to negotiate a tricky path between raising people's concerns and not inciting panic. Among other things, Britain has amassed millions of doses of smallpox vaccine, which could be distributed in the event of an attack, first to health-care workers and then to civilians in the area of any outbreak. It has also begun storing antibiotics that could be used to treat people infected with anthrax and the plague.

The health department is also planning to organize simulated terrorist attacks, complete with large numbers of mock casualties, to test the readiness of the country's emergency services.

"It will be alarming for people to see exercises in which pretend casualties are carried away by people in protective equipment and decontaminated, but they will get used to it," Sir Liam said.