Published: 17/04/2003, Volume II3, No. 5851 Page 8 9

A Commons select committee has criticised the Department of Health over NHS plans, training and equipment intended to deal with major chemical, biological and nuclear incidents.

The public accounts committee's report - called Facing the Challenge - goes on to say the department should base its allocation of resources on a 'more rigorous assessment' of the risks facing different parts of the country.

The report draws heavily on the findings of the National Audit Office's original investigation into NHS emergency planning published last October.

Although its conclusions are similar, committee chair Edward Leigh said there has been 'some progress' in recent months - in particular through increased investment in decontamination and protective equipment which had been called for by the NAO's own report.

The committee also welcomed the involvement of the new Health Protection Agency, which is promising to improve specialised support for health protection and emergency planning.

But the report warns: 'At a time of heightened risk of terrorist attacks, parts of the NHS are not well prepared to handle the emerging threats from nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological incidents. The Department [of Health] lacks a full picture of the risks involved across the country or means of ensuring that each region has plans, training and equipment in place consistent with those risks.'

The report says the allocation of resources needed to be based on a more rigorous national risk assessment which would be developed with the fire and police services and local authorities. It also said the DoH has yet to establish why emergency planning for major incidents varies from region to region.

l The Department of Health is to investigate whether the government can compel airlines to hand out leaflets about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to passengers travelling from the Far East. The move follows a request by the London Assembly for all travellers from Hong Kong and China to have information about the virus, which has so far infected a suspected seven patients in the UK. NHS Direct, GPs and NHS hospitals have received guidance on how to identify and manage the virus, the Assembly's health committee heard, and there are sufficient isolation units to deal with further cases.