‘Capacity pressures’ on emergency services could impact terror response

Stark warning in new report published by a London Assembly committee this week, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Emergency siren
credit Scott Rodgerson via Unsplash

London’s emergency services are facing “capacity pressures” that could have a major impact on their ability to respond to a major terrorist incident, City Hall politicians have said.

The warning is issued in a new report published this week by the London Assembly’s police and crime committee.

The cross-party group said that although improvements have been made to how blue-light services work together to prepare for and respond to a terror attack, the London Ambulance Service and London Fire Brigade are facing significant pressures – related to staffing, funding and capacity – that could impede their response to a major incident.

They also found that the Metropolitan Police faces challenges in recruiting and retaining digital specialists into counter-terror policing – and that its anti-radicalisation strategy, Prevent, “is negatively perceived by many”.

The capital’s emergency services each offered assurances that they are working hard to ensure they are continually able to protect the public in the event of a terror attack, and that they had robust plans in place.

Just weeks after taking office in 2016, mayor Sadiq Khan appointed Lord Harris of Haringey to conduct a “full and independent review to ensure London is as prepared as possible to respond to a major terrorist incident”.

In 2021, Lord Harris was commissioned to undertake a second review in the context of the changing nature of the threat of terrorism. He made 294 recommendations in several key areas – which the committee’s new report builds upon.

Susan Hall, the committee’s Conservative chair, said: “The failures identified in the emergency services’ response to the Manchester Arena attack have shown just how important it is to be prepared to respond rapidly and effectively.

“We recognise the significant pressures facing our emergency services and we are concerned that this could hinder an effective response to a major incident.

“Because of this, we want the London Ambulance Service and the London Fire Brigade to update us on the progress they have made in implementing Lord Harris’ recommendations.

“We are also urging the mayor to seek assurances from the London Ambulance Service that its plans in the context of a major terrorist attack are realistic and deliverable, considering the strain it is currently facing.”

With extremist ideologies becoming increasingly diversified and complex, the committee also stressed in their report the importance of better understanding which people are most at risk of radicalisation.

Susan said: “Prevent plays a key role in London’s anti-terrorism strategy. Its resources must be targeted at those at risk of becoming terrorists to stop future attacks.”

Responding, a spokesperson for Khan said the mayor is “supporting the capital’s emergency services so that they are properly funded and better equipped to deal with specific types of attacks”.

He added: “Sadiq is clear that we must always be ready and prepared for the constantly evolving threat of terrorism, and that is why he is continuing to invest record amounts in the Met and funding community-led grassroots projects across London to tackle extremism, hate and radicalisation so that we can build a safer London for everyone.

“But there is no room for complacency. More must be done which is why the mayor is continuing to call on the government to support City Hall with long-term funding to support our key emergency services and to follow his lead by investing in programmes and new technology which can help reduce the risks of young people becoming radicalised.”

London’s emergency services each said that they welcomed the committee’s report and noted its recommendations.

Jonathan Smith, deputy commissioner of London Fire Brigade, said: “The brigade has made good progress on meeting the recommendations from Lord Harris’s most recent review, which found that very substantial progress has been made by the emergency services since 2016 in counter-terror preparedness, and we welcome the opportunity to report on our progress to the London Assembly later this year.”

He was joined by a spokesperson for the London Ambulance Service, who said the organisation had “robust plans in place that allow us to respond rapidly during major incidents, including terrorist attacks”.

She added that the ambulance service “will be happy to provide assurance to the mayor around our contingency plans and respond formally to the [committee’s] document in full”.

Commander Dominic Murphy, who leads the Met’s counter terrorism command said: “We continue to work hard on implementing the many recommendations made by Lord Harris to make us even better prepared to respond with our partners to a terrorist attack here in London, and we are making good progress with these.

“The implementation of the new counter terrorism operations centre here in London is also helping us to become even more integrated with the other agencies involved in countering the terrorist threat, both here in London, but right across the UK.

“We also share many of the concerns highlighted by the report that are linked to the increasingly complex nature of radicalisation and how it is affecting more and more young people.”

He added that the Met will “will now take time to consider the report’s findings in full but we remain committed to doing everything we can to keep Londoners safe from the very real threats of terrorism and radicalisation”.

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