LONDON BOMBING: THE RESPONSE Police urged to be quicker to issue emergency numbers

Published: 14/07/2005, Volume II5, No. 115 Page 6

The chief medical officer will urge the police to set up emergency helplines more quickly after hospitals were flooded with calls from anxious relatives of commuters caught up in the London terror attacks.

London hospitals told HSJ they were inundated with phone calls and visits from people desperate to find out whether their loved ones were safe after the four bombs exploded from 8.50am onwards last Thursday. The Metropolitan Police did not issue a national helpline number until 3pm.

Clinical staff at the Royal London Hospital, which bore the brunt of the casualties, were unable to communicate with colleagues in other departments because phone lines were so clogged up. The hospital, which treated 208 casualties of the blasts, found itself dealing with calls from embassies across the world, as well as e-mails and faxed photographs of people feared missing.

Chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson told HSJ: 'The emergency phone line for the public came up relatively late in the day; it is not the NHS's responsibility to do that.' 'I think we would be giving feedback to the police that on future occasions it would be helpful to have that up earlier because some of our hospitals were taking inquiries from people ringing around London, wondering whether their relatives or friends were safe.' Paul White, chief executive of Barts and the London trust, which includes the Royal London Hospital, said not having an emergency helpline number was a 'real issue'.

'Some of the phone lines were so clogged that clinical staff, instead of being able to phone colleagues, were having to walk around the organisation to check up on things.'

'It wasn't until Thursday afternoon that the number was identified and that was certainly a lesson to be picked up on, ' said Mr White.

'It means that our switchboard and other staff in the organisation are tied up responding to calls from relatives, and these same people will be phoning all the other hospitals in London as well.

'One co-ordinated number can handle the call once rather than it being repeated around the system.' Mr White added that dealing with the inquiries was one of the most 'harrowing' aspects of the day.

'We had lots of relatives of missing persons either phoning the hospital, turning up... or faxing photos.

'I had personal e-mails from relatives of missing persons asking for help in finding them... Our switchboard received literally hundreds of calls, not only from relatives but embassies. We had virtually every country you can think of in touch.' Royal Free Hampstead trust divisional director for medicine Lorna Donegan said it drafted in extra clerical staff to deal with the calls as part of its major incident plan.

But she added: 'It would have been handy if we had one central number, rather than having embassies calling every hospital in turn as I am sure they did. What we lost were the economies of scale.' A Metropolitan Police spokeswoman said: '[The hotline] was opened at 3pm. It is a very large facility and it cannot be opened until it is going to be fully staffed, otherwise it wouldn't work.'

Healthcare community members still missing

As HSJ went to press several members of the healthcare community remained missing.

Elizabeth Daplyn, 26, a manager in the neuroradiology department at University College Hospital, has not been seen since she travelled to work on the Piccadilly line to Russell Square. Healthcare Commission analyst James Mayes, 28, is believed to have travelled through King's Cross on his way to a seminar. And Behnaz Moxakka, 47, a biomedical officer at Great Ormond Street Hospital, has not been seen since leaving home at 8am on Thursday.