NHS 'unprepared for major terrorist attack'

The NHS is unprepared to handle a terrorist attack, a committee of MPs warned today.

Parts of the Health Service is not ready to cope with the emerging threats from nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological incidents, the Public Accounts Committee found.

The Department of Health lacks a full picture of the risks involved across England - or a means of ensuring each region has the necessary plans, training and equipment in place.

A full audit, carried out just before the establishment of the Health Protection Agency this month, should provide a good starting point for making improvements, the Commons committee said.

However, there needs to be a more rigorous national assessment of risks developed with other organisations such as the fire service, police and local authorities.

The committee's report, the 11th of this Parliamentary Session, said poor communications were often a key weakness in dealing with major incidents.

Yet, many major incident plans did not properly cover communication issues. They were not tested as often as they should be and co-operation with other organisations was patchy.

Committee chairman Edward Leigh said it was worrying that, at a time of a heightened risk of terrorist attacks, some parts of the NHS were not fully prepared.

"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 of England has the necessary plans, training and equipment in place," he said.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Over the past two years we have spent over £100 million on improving NHS preparedness.

"As a result, we are better prepared than ever, but this is an area where further improvements can always be made. We will consider carefully the recommendations of this report and respond in due course."

He said the department had provided national guidance on dealing with mass casualty incidents and the deliberate release of chemical and biological agents.

Stockpiles of emergency equipment, vaccines, antibiotics and antidotes had been placed around England and were accessible by the NHS 24 hours a day.

Since the start of the year, the department had trained ambulance staff in decontamination, run exercises to test readiness and published plans on the threat of smallpox.

He added that the new Health Protection Agency would now be taking a lead on strengthening preparedness, improving communications and spreading best practice.

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