Monday, September 23, 2013

Could it happen here ?

The dreadful events at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi where gunmen from the al-Shabab group have murdered innocent shoppers including women and children in a random act of terrorism have inevitably caused questions to be asked if it could happen here in the UK ?

In the late Autumn of 2010 COBRA , which stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, where it happens to meet , was called after specific intelligence had been received that there was a threat to attack British shopping centres  in the run up to Christmas . The intelligence apparently related to Shopping complexes such as Brent Cross, Lakeside , Meadowhall in Sheffield and  Trafford in Greater Manchester and those attending COBRA had the events in Mumbai a couple of years earlier at the forefront of their minds .

In a rare occurrence the Prime Minister lost his temper when he learnt that in any terrorist incident or indeed any incident involving an armed suspect, firefighters and para medics would stay outside the security cordon until the Police stated that the armed suspect had been dealt with . Even if a building was on fire or there were wounded members of the public needing treatment firefighters and para medics would stay outside the cordon not least due to the danger of being shot themselves by a gunman. The Prime Minister had visions of Sky News filming the scene and of firefighters and para medics sitting around and perceived by the viewing public to be taking no action .

Those who had not seen the Prime Minister lose his temper before realised that he meant business and  that the situation had to change and he had  successfully put a rocket up the Fire Service (and indeed the Ambulance Service).  Indeed one very senior official told me he did not want to be at the end of a "Cameron roasting" again !

Meetings were held with Fire Chiefs in several large cities (London , Birmingham, Manchester and others ) , the then Fire Minister ( Bob Neil ) called in the Fire Brigades Union , who for once put the National interest first and a small number of firefighters in our major cities (the majority in London )  were trained in how to operate wearing bullet proof protection and how to behave in the event of an armed incident . This issue has remained of deep interest to the Prime Minister, I recall him discussing it with firefighters when he visited Tottenham Fire Station in the aftermath of the 2011 Summer riots and I have no doubt that David Cameron's personal efforts on this have made the UK better prepared in the event of a Nairobi style attack.


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