5,000 body bags ordered in case of terrorist chemical attack
By Martin Bentham, Social Affairs Correspondent
The government is buying more than 120,000 decontamination suits to protect people from a terrorist chemical or biological attack on potential targets across Britain such as Trafalgar Square.
Thousands of decontamination showers, shelters, stretchers and other equipment are also being ordered - as well as 5,000 body bags.
The equipment, which is intended to be available by the middle of next year at the latest, will be stored at 16 locations, ready to be distributed within minutes of a terrorist attack.
The orders, which are due to be placed before Christmas, have been prompted by concern that Britain is seriously under-prepared to cope with the consequences of a chemical or biological assault.
A recent report by the National Audit Office concluded that the National Health Service's capacity to deal with a major attack was "worryingly low".
The Home Office gave warning last month that Islamic fundamentalists might use radioactive "dirty" bombs or poison gas to cause large numbers of casualties in British cities. This alert was later retracted because of fears that it would cause public panic.
Information on new Government contracts, which has been obtained by The Telegraph, reveals the full extent of the threat that ministers believe the country is facing.
One batch of contracts, which is about to be awarded, is for 120,000 pre-decontamination suits, to be used immediately after a chemical or biological attack.
The contracts will also provide 100,000 post-decontamination suits to be worn by people after their initial treatment. Industry officials say the 20,000 difference reflects the number of deaths likely to occur.
Philip Ward, the managing director of Ferno UK, the country's leading manufacturer of emergency and rescue equipment, said that his company was among those bidding for the contracts, which were for "huge" quantities that were "getting bigger by the day".
"The first big contract is for in excess of £50 million worth of gear. The list of products is extremely long, from suits to showers to shelters, even down to specialised vehicles to take mass decontamination equipment to the site of the disaster," he said.
"A second contract is for equipment, stretchers and evacuation chairs but, again, it's significant that, for the first time on any government tender, all equipment must be capable of being totally decontaminated.
"Our understanding from the information received from tenders is that they have identified 16 UK locations, which will, effectively, be warehouses, where all of this equipment will be stored and allocated."
Mr Ward said one scenario that the Government had asked his company and others to plan for was a terrorist attack on Trafalgar Square.
"One of the interesting things was what they refer to as pre-decontamination and post-decontamination. If terrorists get a crop-sprayer and spray Trafalgar Square and there are 5,000 people covered in some obnoxious substance, how do you de-contaminate 5,000 people in Trafalgar Square? That's what we are working on."
The treatment, said Mr Ward, would begin with each victim stripping and putting on a pre-decontamination suit. Their clothes would be placed in a separate bag for incineration.
Swabs would then be provided for the victims to clean out orifices which could contain traces of the chemical, before each person passed through a shower - set up in shelters at the site of the attack - to wash off the substance. Finally, post-decontamination suits would be given to reclothe the victims.
Mr Ward said that other possible targets discussed by the Government included the Houses of Parliament and Canary Wharf in London, as well as the centres of big cities.
The deadline for delivering orders had originally been next July, but this had already been brought forward to June and appeared likely to move forward even further. "They are talking about very large numbers and very short time spans," said Mr Ward.
Other equipment required by the Government includes 50,000 decontamination shelters, 2,000 stretchers, 2,000 evacuation chairs and 5,000 body bags.
A spokesman for the Deputy Prime Minister's office, which is co-ordinating the purchases, refused to comment on any specific threats or to confirm the quantities of equipment ordered.
He said, however, that £56 million had been allocated this year to prepare for potentially catastrophic terrorist incidents. Some of the money would buy decontamination equipment, which would be held by the fire service.
"We have evaluated our capacity to respond to a catastrophic incident and developed a strategy to improve our resilience," said the spokesman. "A procurement of mass decontamination equipment is under way.
"We wouldn't comment on specific tenders or anything like that, but we are aiming to move forward as quickly as possible."
December 08, 2002
All homes to get terror survival plan
ALL households are to be issued with instructions on how to survive a major terrorist attack under new peacetime civil protection laws.
Ministers are drafting a new bill which will oblige local authorities to draw up and publicise emergency plans on how to cope with biological, nuclear and chemical attacks. In an echo of wartime Britain, the initiative will involve leaflets being put through the doors of all Britain’s 24m homes with the message to “go in, stay in, tune in” in the event of an attack.
Householders will also be advised to have a reserve supply of food and water and be shown how to access evacuation plans if the danger of radiation or gas poisoning proves too great. There will be a new breed of civil defence wardens called “gatekeepers”.
The emergence of the bill, which is expected to be ready in the early part of next year, indicates that the risk of attack is now being taken more seriously than at any time since the cold war. Nick Raynsford, minister for local government and the regions, said its aim was to give the public greater information but not to cause panic. “We want people to know we are ready for any eventuality without alarming the public,” he said.
The bill will contain new emergency powers for the government including the ability to declare “community assistance zones” to help move people faster in the event of a catastrophic incident. Each of the country’s 400 local authorities will be asked to set up dossiers which will detail procedures to adopt in the event of an evacuation with details of assembly points in school halls and refuges in the countryside. Some of these databases, known as “community risk registers”, will be made available over the internet.
Households will be told to watch the television and listen to the radio to find out what they should do next in the event of an attack. They will also be given a special number to dial by their local authority to find out what is happening. The NHS Direct phoneline will expand its service to give advice on the effects of chemical or biological contamination. People will be advised not to drink from taps in case a chemical attack or leak has contaminated the water supply and to pack a bag in case they need to be moved.
Evacuation plans will not be contained in the leaflets because government officials are concerned people might try to leave the area immediately without waiting to hear of the nature of the attack. “This could prove disastrous in the event of certain kinds or chemical attack or if we think there may be a second explosion,” said a senior cabinet office source.
Raynsford said UK Resilience, the body set up after September 11 to devise new contingency plans for the country, was setting up a network of gatekeepers — members of the public and the business community who would inform people on the nature of an attack and help in evacuation.
Coded mobile phone text messages would be used to alert the gatekeepers and police vans with loudspeakers would patrol the streets giving commands. There are no plans to erect sirens, as it is thought they would panic people into fleeing cities, possibly causing many deaths in traffic accidents, but officials are examining sending warning text messages to all mobile phone owners in specific areas.
A spokesman for the office of the deputy prime minister, said: “People have to be made aware of some basics. They will have to have some provisions ready and be prepared to evacuate. But they will not want piles of documents sent to their homes on the effects of radiation sickness.”
Some of the advice revives memories of the civil defence warnings issued during the cold war. “They are digging out the old stuff, dusting it off and putting in some management guru terms,” said Eric Alley, 79, a former chief emergency planning officer for local authorities and a civil defence adviser to Douglas Hurd when he was home secretary in the late 1980s. “But it’s basically what we were told to do 30 or 40 years ago.”
A Cabinet Office document admits that since the end of the cold war government offices have not been geared up for a major attack on the population. It also suggests there are problems over funding: “The current position is that while many government offices possess a cadre of staff with experience in helping respond to emergencies, they are prevented by resource constraints from developing a full planning and crisis management capability.”
The new legislation will reprise the Civil Defence Act of 1948 which imposed a statutory role on local councils to provide emergency planning. Many of its elements were scrapped by Harold Wilson in 1968 when his government ran into financial difficulties. A 250,000-strong volunteer Civil Defence Corps was disbanded to save £12m a year.
In the early 1980s the Conservative government produced a leaflet, Protect and Survive, as a guide on how to survive a nuclear attack. It was illustrated with drawings of a family building a survival shelter in their home: the father taking the inner doors from their frames to pile around a kitchen table; the mother shepherding the children into the makeshift shelter with tins of baked beans and bottled water.
Essex county council has already started to inform people through a series of advertisements and leaflets. “The idea is not to scare people, but it is important to inform them of sensible steps which everyone can take,” said a spokesman.
A £50m order, which includes 120,000 decontamination suits, showers, shelters and 5,000 body bags has been placed by the government.Health ministers from around the world meeting in Mexico City have agreed to a multi-national exercise next June to test the global response to “bio-terrorism”.