Troops on standby due to Olympic security shortfall
LONDON – Britain could be forced to deploy thousands of extra troops in London during the Olympics after a last-minute security blunder dealt an embarrassing blow to the government just two weeks before the Games.
With the eyes of the world trained on London, the government was forced to answer questions in parliament on the issue yesterday as it struggled to contain snaking airport queues and extensive road works that threaten to harm its reputation.
About 23,700 security guards had been due to protect venues as part of Britain’s biggest peacetime security operation, with 13,500 military personnel already earmarked to contribute. But on Wednesday, Britain put an extra 3,500 soldiers on standby after the world’s biggest security firm G4S said it might not be able to supply the 10,400 security guards it had promised as part of a £284 million (€360 million) deal.
“Let me reiterate there is no question of Olympic security being compromised,” home secretary Theresa May told parliament.
A call-up of the additional 3,500 troops would take the tally at the Games to 17,000, more than the 9,500 deployed in Afghanistan. The deployment of troops poses an awkward balancing act for the government in trying to guarantee security at the Games while not letting its precautions become so intrusive that they spoil its atmosphere.
The disclosure follows months of mounting concerns that officials, athletes and fans could have to spend hours queuing to get through London’s main Heathrow airport where border controls have struggled to cope with large crowds. Thousands of athletes and officials are expected to start arriving into the capital this weekend before the Olympic Village opens its doors on Monday.
Britain has already spent some £9 billion (€11 billion) on the Games and much of the early focus will fall on how the city can cope with such a massive influx of visitors, four years after a Beijing games noted for its gleaming new airport and infrastructure.
Adding to the bumpy build-up to the Games, British mobile operator O2 apologised to users yesterday after a network outage hit hundreds of thousands of customers, raising concern about how it will cope with a jump in demand once the Olympics begin.
Britain’s Highways Agency also said on Wednesday it would work around the clock to complete road works on a major motorway between London and Heathrow airport, where repairs to a cracked road have caused major delays on a key Olympic transport route.
The security news is also a huge blow to G4S, which employs more than 657,000 staff, working in areas ranging from cash handling to guarding ships from pirates. During the Games, security guards are needed to provide airport-style checks to search and screen spectators, and can also check vehicles. They will also be responsible for queue management and protecting the perimeters and equipment.
The company said last week it was so confident about its preparations it thought it could deliver a similar Olympic-sized event elsewhere in the world while at the same time delivering the London Games. Yesterday G4S said: “We understand the Government’s decision to bring in additional resources and will work with Locog [the organising committee], the military and other agencies to deliver a safe and secure Games.
“We have encountered some delays in progressing applicants through the final stages but we are working extremely hard to process these as swiftly as possible.”