Health Service Would Struggle to Cope with Terror Attack, UK Lawmakers Say

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

London ( - Major gaps exist in the ability of Britain's state-run National Health Service (NHS) to deal with a major terrorist attack, according to a parliamentary report released Wednesday.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found the health service "lacks a full picture of the risks involved across the country" and the means of ensuring that each region has the right personnel and equipment.

In response, the Department of Health said that progress has been made since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

But committee members recommended that officials move to identify the risks facing London and key military installations and population centers outside the capital.

"The department should ensure that ... plans are based on rigorous risk assessments and that resources are allocated in line with those risks," the report said.

"Communication plans are not tested as frequently as they should be, cooperation with other agencies such as the fire service and local authorities is patchy and there is a need to improve communications," the lawmakers said.

The committee has been looking into NHS terrorism planning since a report by the National Audit office last November.

That report estimated that more than one-third of all local health departments in England are not "well prepared" for a nuclear accident or attack.

Committee chairman Edward Leigh, a member of the Conservative Party, said that it is worrying that the NHS is not completely ready to handle emerging terror threats.

"I am pleased that there has been some progress in recent months, but there is an urgent need for the Department of Health to ensure that each region has the necessary plans, training and equipment in place," he said.

The Department of Health, which oversees the NHS, said in a statement that "a huge amount of work has been done" to improve the readiness level of local health authorities.

"We have provided national guidance on dealing with mass casualty incidents and how to deal with the deliberate release of a wide range of different chemical and biological agents," the department said in a statement.

"There are stockpiles of emergency equipment, vaccines, antibiotics, and antidotes, strategically placed around the country. They are accessible by the NHS 24 hours a day."

The department also noted the training of ambulance teams in decontamination, the formulation of specific plans to deal with smallpox and the establishment of a department devoted to emergency preparedness.

The department said it has spent more than $150 million in this area in the past two years.

"As a result, we are better prepared than ever, but this is an area where further improvements can always be made," the statement said.

See Earlier Story:
Terror Attack Would 'Challenge' British Health System (Nov. 15, 2002)

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