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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Is the UK prepared?
May Day protester in gas mask
Gas mask will not be distributed to the nation
The attacks on the United States a fortnight ago made the unthinkable imaginable. The UK is now strengthening its defences against chemical and biological attack - but Downing St says there's no evidence of any threat.

Until 11 September, the sort of fanaticism shown by suicide bombers who attacked New York and Washington could scarcely be believed.

New Yorkers flee the collapsing towers
After the WTC attacks, gas mask sales soared
But after that day, emergency and intelligence services around the world took a long hard look at their defences.

The UK, for one, came up wanting, with experts warning that planning budgets had been cut and that they were working within "1948 regulations".

The fear is not so much of missiles, but more that future attackers may resort to chemical or biological weapons.

The threat from such weapons has always been taken seriously, but the terror in America has made the prospect of such an attack seem more plausible. Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman has said there is "no evidence" of a specific threat to the UK.

Researching anthrax vaccines in Porton Down 1964
Bio-terrorism has been a threat for decades
It has also focused the minds of the powers-that-be.

Emergency services and local authorities are on full alert, and water utilities, electricity plants and reservoirs have been ordered to tighten security.

Plans to set up a national civil emergencies agency are underway.

And in the UK, as in the United States, people have started buying gas masks.

Secrecy for security

Coping with an attack would be left to the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Army, while local authorities would take responsibility for getting residents to a place of safety.

Police behind women on their way to a mosque
An extra 1,500 police patrolled London last weekend
But both central government and local authorities refuse to divulge details about security measures taken, for fear of revealing their hand to would-be attackers.

Even requests for information about what supplies local councils might lay in to cater for evacuees are met with a wary silence.

However, not all steps are shrouded in secrecy:

• The UK has tightened security in the use of crop dusting planes - but not as strict as in the US, where such aircraft have been grounded. In the UK, this form of pest control is not as common, not being considered cost-effective or environmentally friendly;

• Hospitals are upgrading their contingency plans for dealing with the victims of a major incident;

• Many plan to put up temporary buildings and standpipes to hose down the victims of a chemical attack;

• Vaccines for anthrax and small pox have been stockpiled;

• The National Blood Service has 50,000 available units of blood in England;

• Police have stepped up patrols and vehicle searches;

• The so-called "ring of steel" around the City of London - a network of police checkpoints and CCTV cameras surrounding the financial centre - is back in operation;

• Security at nuclear installations has been stepped up;

• Schools and church and community halls are already designated as reception areas for rescue workers and evacuees.

Gas mask for all?

However, local emergency officers fear the country is ill-equipped to cope with such an attack.

Ian Hoult, of the Emergency Planning Society which represents more than 80% of professionals in the field, says officers have been hampered by the end of the Cold War.


We're still working with 1948 civil defence regulations

Ian Hoult
Civil defence budgets have fallen from 25.1m to 14.1m in the past decade. Staffing levels have fallen by about 50% and bunkers have been sold off.

"And we're still working with 1948 civil defence regulations. These are being revised, but the earliest they are likely to be on the statute books is 2005 because there's no space on the legislative calendar.

"It wasn't a priority before, but perhaps it will be now."

Mr Hoult also doubts that sufficient gas masks and protective clothing would be available for emergency workers, let alone the general public. This is because the expense outweighs the perceived risk of such an attack.

John Eldridge, editor of Jane's Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence, says there is no need to panic.

"We have become fairly inured to the fact that there is a high risk of bomb attacks from the IRA, for example, and we don't all rush around in flak jackets and armoured cars.

"If you buy a respirator or a suit, what are you going to do - wear it all the time?"

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Sue Nelson
"Anthrax seems to be the disease that most people fear"

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See also:

24 Sep 01 | Science/Nature
25 Sep 01 | Americas
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