BMA warns that too few people know response to a terrorist attack

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 08 March 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:516
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. London

    The BMA warned this week that the United Kingdom is insufficiently prepared for a possible terrorist attack involving biological or chemical weapons because too few people know the details of response plans.

    Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, submitted evidence to a parliamentary select committee looking into the response to terrorism, saying that the BMA was concerned about the small number of people who knew how to deal with a potential terrorist attack. If the senior officials who are aware of the plans become victims of the attack themselves, as happened in New York on 11 September 2001, a coordinated response would collapse. The New York city's disaster planning office was situated high up in the south tower, and several key officials were early victims of the attack.

    In written evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, she said: “We must learn from this [the 11 September attacks] and ensure that our plans, both local and national, are known to enough people and have sufficient redundancy that any attack would not be likely to eradicate in the first instance all those capable of running a proper programme of response.”

    She suggested that at a local level a team of specialists, such as a director of public health and a number of colleagues, should be aware of plans so that any one of them could step in if the director was unavailable.

    Dr Nathanson also pointed out that the government's green paper on biological and chemical weapons provides no legislation for the fact that people can infect themselves with a biological agent and spread it by simply walking about. Such a scenario might sound like something from a television drama, but “it is also a realistic possibility,” she said.

    Dr Nathanson was due to be questioned on the BMA's evidence on Wednesday 5 March, after the BMJ went to press.

    Embedded Image

    Leaders of United Kingdom emergency services gathered in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, this week to see how decontamination specialists would deal with a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack


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