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UK cannot be complacent over chemical or biological incident response plans

16 December 2009

The UK is better prepared to respond to a chemical or biological incident than it was five years ago, but the relevant agencies cannot be complacent, scientists say in a review of the nation’s response capability published today by the Royal Society. The review evaluates progress made against recommendations published five years ago in a Royal Society report on improving the UK’s capability to respond to a chemical or biological incident.

The 2004 report stated that realistic exercises are essential in order to test and develop the correct reactions to an incident; the review published today raises concerns that such exercises have not been forthcoming.  The authors urge the relevant agencies to continue conducting test exercises that are as realistic as possible, particularly in terms of medical and decontamination responses.  They point out that “current exercises stop at the door of A&E departments and therefore do not test the entire medical response”.Furthermore, the Government Decontamination Service (the agency responsible for organising recovery from a deliberate or accidental chemical or biological incident) has conducted only desktop exercises.

The review also highlights the fact that, despite significant improvements in organisational and procedural structure over the last five years, the civil and military governmental groups required to improve the UK capability to detect and respond to a chemical or biological incident remain somewhat dispersed.  The authors suggest that significant improvements could be made in terms of efficiency and continuity of expertise if this issue was to be considered further.

Related to this is the need for greater clarity where civilian and military requirements converge.  The authors state that “UK capabilities are dispersed over several institutions and organisations making fully co-ordinated and cross-cutting scientific research difficult”.  With budgets in this area under pressure, it is vital that the government makes the best possible use of available resources and avoids duplication of effort.