Lax hospital security could give terrorists working in the NHS easy access to potentially deadly materials, including viruses.

An NHS security expert has told HSJ that the terrorist threat is not being taken seriously enough.

The security management specialist, based in a London hospital, warned that in many hospitals staff could gain access to unauthorised areas with relative ease. And thefts of substances might not be discovered for days.

'Most hospitals give staff cards that let them into certain areas, but it's easy to lend someone your pass. That could give them access to x-ray machines, isotopes, chemicals and disease slides,' he said. 'It could be days before anyone realised a virus was missing.'

Some hospitals were investing in biometric technology, he said, but this was expensive.

'The official view is that the threat to hospitals is fairly low, but we're just as vulnerable as any nightclub - these people want maximum impact,' he added.

Through the cracks

The warning came after seven of the eight people arrested in connection with the attempted terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London were linked to the NHS. One of them, Bilal Abdullah, a doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, Scotland, has since been charged with conspiring to cause explosions.

Counter-terrorism minister Admiral Sir Alan West this week gave prime minister Gordon Brown a confidential review into NHS recruitment, commissioned following the attempted attacks. His report is understood to contain initial findings on how vetting procedures on overseas staff could be tightened.

HSJ has been told by the Department of Health's former deputy director general of workforce that the quality of trusts' staff screening procedures is 'variable'.

University College London Hospitals foundation trust workforce director David Amos said up to one in five trusts were not following good practice.

'There are clear guidelines but trusts follow them to very different degrees,' he said.

Vetting processes depended on a trust's leadership, staff motivation and IT systems, he said.