Report concedes Foreign Office tsunami response errors

The Foreign Office has welcomed a report by the National Audit Office (NOA) on Consular Services, but has admitted that mistakes were made in the emergency response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The 36 call handlers at a UK emergency hotline number based at the Metropolitan Police centre in Hendon were swamped by 11,000 call per hour at the peak period. Based on incorrect initial information an emergency response team was sent to Sri Lanka, instead of Thailand where the only medical support with the consular team there was a doctor, a nurse and a retired counsellor who were all volunteers. It took two weeks to correct this mistake and send the emergency teams to the right area.

However, the efforts of the Foreign Office staff were broadly praised as they had struggled to deal with the demands of people seeking information about relatives and police conducting missing persons enquiries.

The report concluded that staff had been drafted in with little or no experience and that mistakes had been made in recording vital information by staff working long hours under severe pressure.

Conducted at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's request, the NAO's review is the first comprehensive, independent assessment for more than a decade of the Government's support for British Nationals abroad.

While the report notes "significant progress" has been made in responding to the challenge of rising demand alongside the growing complexity of cases as people travelling independently to dangerous destinations.

The recommendations also included:
  • better influencing travellers' behaviour, so that more people use the 'high-quality' travel advice to make responsible and realistic decisions about safety abroad, and insure themselves properly;
  • better defining service standards and managing public expectations of what help can be provided;
  • re-examining how passports are provided through Embassies overseas in preparation for the first biometric passports;
  • looking at 'fuller, more rapid emergency responses' to major crises involving British Nationals overseas.
The NAO noted that implementation of many of these recommendations is already "under way".

A survey of Britons affected by the tsunami crisis has been commissioned by the Foreign Office to drawing up a more effective set of response strategies.


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