'Terror cordon' plan for UK cities


UK: UK ministers are planning to give the police and military new powers to quarantine large parts of London or other cities as part of dramatic plans to counter a terrorist attack. Officials are also looking at proposals to evacuate people from inner areas of London, such as Westminster, to outer suburbs in the event of an attack.

Senior local council executives are being called to a planning meeting later this month.

Police already have powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 to set up cordons to investigate a terrorist incident.

But at the moment they are not able to set up cordons if they are not sure the incident is terrorist related, or if they believe it is in the public interest to keep Londoners quarantined. The aim of new measures would be to prevent people in areas hit by a biological attack spreading deadly infections across the country.

Cabinet Office officials said health cordons were under active consideration. The new powers will be included in a civil contingencies bill first planned in the wake of the foot and mouth outbreak and the fuel depots blockade. The government is being urged to prepare for possible inter-communal tension in the event of a terrorist strike.

A civil contingencies force of 7,000 volunteer reservists trained in using arms, is also planned.

The force, foreshadowed in a white paper last July, is due to be established in 14 regions, each with 500 volunteers. The reservists would be deployed after requests from the civil authorities and advice from regional military commanders responsible for home defence and security.

The department of health's joint committee of vaccination and immunisation warned this month that smallpox could be deliberately released as a biological weapon.

It added that without containment measures this would almost certainly lead to a rapid spread with the majority of the UK population susceptible, after vaccination ended in the 1970s. It has also issued advice to GPs to help them recognise smallpox in its early stages, and has stockpiled 60 million vaccines. But the government has ruled against pre-emptive vaccination of the entire population.

The shadow health secretary, Mr Liam Fox, welcomed fresh evidence of planning, but warned: "There will always be a time gap between infection and the first symptoms developing, which could mean movement has already occurred. Therefore it makes sense to allow immunisation of the public when vaccines become available." The Liberal Democrats' Mr Ed Davey described the measures as draconian, adding: "They can only be justified if those who might find themselves inside a cordon knew they were being treated properly through prompt decontamination." Mr Davey said: "The government's current bargain basement approach to civil defence measures will not stretch to these plans."

- (Guardian Service)