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Panorama Monday, 29 October, 2001, 16:25 GMT
David Kerry on anthrax threat
David Kerry
David Kerry on anthrax threat

How well-prepared for a bio-terrorist emergency is London? David Kerry, Emergency Planning Officer for Hounslow in west London, answered your questions in a live forum. Click on the link below for full coverage of the forum. A transcript will be available soon.

Video56K

Panorama's investigation into the realities behind the prospects of a terrorist strike using biological weapons shows how New York has been coping with the current crisis.

The programme also focuses on the London Borough of Hounslow to discover just how well prepared one London borough is for a bio-terrorist emergency.

Hounslow's Emergency Planning Officer, David Kerry, is also Chair of the London branch of the Emergency Planning Society.


Highlights of the interview


Newshost:

T. Bennett, London, UK: I believe at least the major cities in the UK should demonstrate that they are taking the threat seriously and like New York take credible steps to monitor sickness statistics daily - they should then go public to reassure the population of the steps they're taking.


David Kerry:

I quite agree with that comment - we should be able to do that. In London we can demonstrate to a very large extent that for most of the events that we could ever think of before the 11th September, London was prepared - certainly up until that point. I'll quite happily and very confidently say that for almost any imaginable event in London today, the emergency plans we have in place - with all the emergency services, the health sector, the local authorities - those plans are tried and tested and they will work.

What's happened since the 11th September is the new threats, as we are being told, of chemical and biological releases, these are matters which, in local authorities certainly, we were told previously not to do any detailed planning for because these were such a small risk and the responses just too large to plan for - that has now changed. For years it has not been the role of local authorities to do detailed planning in this area. There is a slight difference in those parts of the country where they have got a large chemical plant - yes plans have been dealt with for those specifics. The sort of terrorism we are talking about now - no, in local authorities we certainly haven't had those plans. I don't believe the emergency services have had plans for mass casualties of the scale we are now being asked to consider.


Newshost:

Mark T, Guildford, UK: Do we have a national advisory council on public health preparedness or any such advisory department in Britain?


David Kerry:

I do know that at the moment directors of public health are making sure that GPs are aware of these issues. Advice is going out from the public health laboratory service about the collection of data so that any trends developing can be brought forward. What I don't know is whether the level of reporting is going to be up to the scale of that that we have seen in New York. What we are trying to do, perhaps rather belatedly now, is to look at how do we respond should those indicators come through.

I am very happy to say now that in London the National Health Service have organised some training events for those people who would be involved in something called the Joint Health Advisory Cell, who would meet together to respond if there is a biological threat. It is starting to happen now but I would be dishonest if I said that we had robust plans for a mass event.


Newshost:

Fred, London, UK: If a large number of people do contract deadly diseases by the use of biological terrorism we'll have to deal with the repercussions. Are there measures in place to help our doctors cope with such a situation?


David Kerry:

It is a difficult one to answer because we are told by the Government that there are national plans to deal with these issues. I think one of the problems is that whatever national issues plans exist, we are not aware of them at local level. The difficulty that I have is that if I don't know what national plans are, I can't plan our bit to fit in with those. That work is now starting - I would like to see it happen rather more quickly.


Newshost:

Nat, London, UK: I am absolutely aghast at the secretive mentality of the UK Government. We know that there may be no evidence of a credible threat but haven't the events of September 11th taught them anything? Would they need a specific threat to be leaked before they started acting?


David Kerry:

Good emergency planning is thinking the unthinkable and planning for it regardless and not waiting until the threat is so close.


Newshost:

Is he right to be aghast?


David Kerry:

Well I am a bit concerned myself and I am not inclined to disagree with him.


Newshost:

Shaun de Souza, UK: If the tube is a high risk area then what are the London authorities doing to handle that threat? Are they placing sensors like the US authorities?


David Kerry:

I know as much as anybody else from what I have read on the web, that is that it is thought that sensors won't give an early enough warning. London Transport say they have plans - again those are very confidential plans. Clearly security is an issue. What we don't want to do is give away matters that terrorists will take comfort from. But on the other hand, if people are looking to me as their local emergency planning officer to give them reassurance, I can only do so to a limit.


Newshost:

M. Shawyer, Berkshire, UK: Has our Government got any stockpiles of antibiotics, vaccines etc. available should something occur tomorrow?

Well you are not the Government so you can only give the answer that you understand the Government would give.


David Kerry:

The answer we have been given is that they are reviewing their stockpiles.


Newshost:

P Taggett, Swindon, UK: If a large populated area like Hounslow is as ill prepared as it sounds for any bio-hazard, what chance has the rest of the country have?

Is there a way of waking up the Government to inform the rest of us about their plans even on a basic level?


David Kerry:

I think the programme that went out last night and this discussion today, I hope, is being heard by Government. I will repeat yet again, we have very good plans to the level we have been dealing with before. Chemical, biological matters on a mass scale - no, we haven't got any plans in Hounslow.


Newshost:

H. Brooke, London, UK: As a dual US/UK citizen, I find it shocking that the Government is allowed to get away with such secrecy. The difference should be apparent to everyone watching the programme that there is a wide gulf between the openness with which the New York City government agencies deal with these crises and that of their British counterparts. When will we start demanding an open government?


David Kerry:

I have to be a little bit careful here as I am not the politician for Hounslow and that is partly a matter for them. As a private citizen, then yes, I am all in favour of open government as far as we can go without compromising appropriate security. As an employee at Hounslow, I can only repeat what I have already said and that is if I am to do my job properly on behalf of my residents, I need a little bit more information.


Newshost:

Paul. Davis, Hounslow, UK: As a resident of Hounslow and a council taxpayer, I am very worried that we are not fully prepared for every kind of disaster. I am, like you, even more disturbed by the secrecy being displayed by Whitehall. What can the general public do to make the Government come clear?


David Kerry:

Apart from chemical biological, we are prepared in Hounslow to deal with the disasters that we are faced with - we do train, we do plan and we do work with everybody else. On the current issue though, I would say, like any other citizens, write to the MP, write to the Ministers involved.


Newshost:

Andy, London, UK: Any mild sceptics might be forgiven for wondering if the veil of secrecy covering UK biological chemical counter terrorism contingencies exists more to mask a total absence of any form of comprehensive planning than to protect any such existing strategy. Are they being secretive for the simple reason that there is nothing underneath?


David Kerry:

I wouldn't possible know.


Newshost:

Carol McKnight from Glasgow: I think that by keeping the public in the dark about plans only increases their fear rather than diminishing it.


David Kerry:

We have always thought that in emergency planning in this country, at a local authority level, that transparency is very important. It is important to us that people know that emergency planning done and what those plans are so the people themselves can understand what their part in an emergency response may be.


Newshost:

Barbara Reed from Holywell, UK: Are we wise to continually advertise that both we and the US seem unprepared to deal with the consequences of a biological attack? Are we not aiding the enemy?


David Kerry:

I look at it in two ways: one is that I am as concerned as any other citizen here to ensure that there is security. I do not want to be giving terrorists the thought that we are an easy touch and I have to say that I don't think we are an easy touch. Having said that, it is also my responsibility that if there's a shortfall in what I am supposed to be doing then I think that needs to be said. I don't think there is any value in my hiding matters for the sake of it. There's a gap here in emergency planning. I think it is important that we talk about that at this time and that we do something to put it right.

Bin Laden's Biological Threat


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ANTHRAX ALERT
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