Diversion of time and resources is just what the service doesn't need

Britain is in danger of being gripped by a virulent and highly contagious condition which could wreak havoc on the NHS - panic. An air of unreality hangs over the latest guidance from the Department of Health this week, on action to be taken in the event of a deliberate release of anthrax bacteria.

Like so much else since 11 September, it seems to belong to science fiction or a disaster movie rather than that dreary and unending series of central government directives which managers have come to loathe and dread in equal measure in the last four years.

Ministers were criticised by the British Medical Association last week for the apparent sluggishness and secrecy with which they appeared to be dealing with the threat of bioterrorism, in contrast to the open and high-profile measures set in train across the Atlantic. But the government has to tread a fine line between urgency and scaremongering, between assuring the public and causing needless alarm, between providing adequate information and disclosing facts which may be useful to terrorists.

Panic could cause almost as much damage as the disease itself. Already, since the first confirmed cases of anthrax in the US last week, numerous instances have been reported from around the world of suspect packages containing mysterious substances turning up in the post. Probably most will be found to have been either innocent or hoaxes.

For the NHS a more pressing danger is that GP surgeries, accident and emergency departments and laboratories will be beset by the worried well, rattled by what they read in their newspapers - especially as the early symptoms of anthrax are relatively innocuous.

So at the same time as the government has been obliged to make preparations to combat biological warfare - increasing stocks of antibiotics and vaccines, and launching a public information campaign - chief medical officer Professor Liam Donaldson has emphasised that no evidence exists of any 'immediate threat or risk'.

The UK has had 14 cases of anthrax in the last 20 years, and no deaths in the last 10. If the worst did happen, an outbreak is likely to be localised and, if identified soon enough, is unlikely to be fatal. Nevertheless, chief executives, GPs, A&E consultants, microbiologists, first aid units and walk-in centres have all been officially alerted to the possibility.

The irony is that - given the circumstances - time and resources have to be diverted from the urgent and overriding task of modernising the service. That, of course, shows the real potency of the terrorist threat.