Published: 21/11/2002, Volume II2, No. 5832 Page 7

Primary care trusts have reacted angrily to news that they will foot over 60 per cent of the£150m-ayear bill for the agency set up to co-ordinate NHS and other emergency services' response to terrorist attacks.

The Health Protection Agency, due to be launched in April, will bring together the Public Health Laboratory Service, the National Radiological Protection Board, the Centre for Applied Microbiological Research and the National Focus for Chemical Incidents in protecting the nation's health.

It will also bring together consultants in communicable disease control, health emergency planning advisors and infection control nurses. In addition, the agency will provide a field service.

But PCTs have expressed concern that 61 per cent of HPA revenue funding will come from their budgets and 39 per cent from existing commercial work carried out by NRPB and CAMR.

Minutes of an HPA project meeting on 19 September say:

'PCTs have now been informed of the amounts to be taken from their baselines for HPA activities, which had generated considerable interest from individual PCTs.'

GP Dr Ron Singer, an executive member of the NHS Alliance, said: 'PCT budgets are already overspent. Now we are being asked to pay 60 per cent towards protecting everyone from gas attacks or nuclear holocaust. The sums just do not add up.'

A Department of Health spokesman said that PCTs were contributing because consultants in communicable disease control and their teams are moving to the HPA. He added: 'The first they knew of it was when they were told [the money] was being taken away.

I understand there is to be some negotiation around these figures.'

The news follows a scathing National Audit Office report published last week which identified major gaps in the ability of acute and ambulance trusts to respond to chemical, biological radiological and nuclear incidents.

Just one in 10 trusts consider themselves well prepared for a chemical incident and even fewer think they could cope with a biological incident.

Half of acute trusts and onethird of ambulance trusts think that key staff have not been sufficiently trained in the use of protective and other equipment.

Large numbers of trusts also regard their protective equipment and facilities as poor.

Defending the 'exemplary' response of the NHS to incidents like the Paddington rail crash, chief medical officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson said the report emphasised the need for better training, scenario planning and joint agency working, as well as more equipment.

A DoH spokesperson said£5m had been allocated to pay for 800 personal protection suites and 300 mobile decontamination chambers. Each acute trust would receive one mobile decontamination chamber and 10 suites, with the remainder going to ambulance trusts.