The “poor leadership” of emergency services meant Manchester was not ready for the terrorist attack that killed 22 people in 2017, the region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has said.
A damning inquiry report on the Manchester arena bombing identified significant failings by police, fire and ambulance services. At least one of those killed would probably have survived were it not for a response that was described as badly prepared, delayed and chaotic, it was found.
Burnham said the report raised serious questions for the whole of the UK. “The blunt truth is, we weren’t ready as a country for a major terrorist attack of this kind outside of London,” he told the BBC on Friday.
He said the leadership of Greater Manchester police (GMP) and the region’s fire services in 2017 were “poor”, with a “poor internal culture and an inability to cooperate with each other. We have changed that but I would not want to sit here and sound complacent. There is more to be done.”
Speaking after publication of Sir John Saunders’ report, Burnham said he had been misled by GMP’s senior officers. He said the force had “tried to stick for too long to a corporate narrative that suggested it had acted effectively”.
He added: “That wasn’t just disrespectful to the families and those injured, it had the effect of misleading myself and the deputy mayor, denied everyone the opportunity to learn, and delayed the action needed to improve the force. This is sadly something we have seen in the aftermath of other disasters and a pattern that keeps on repeating.”
He said there needed to be a duty of candour on all public servants, empowering people at all levels to say what they felt needed to be said. A statutory duty of candour was recommended five years ago by James Jones, a former Bishop of Liverpool, in his report on the experience of Hillsborough families.
“Given that a previous prime minister [Theresa May] personally commissioned his review, I consider it disrespectful to her, to the Hillsborough families, to the Manchester Arena families and the Grenfell families, that that review has lain on a Whitehall shelf for five full years without so much as a government response.”
Burnham said when he had evidence about the force’s failings he had acted. “GMP is a very different police force today,” he said. He also pointed to GMP last week coming out of special measures, imposed two years ago after a report revealed an estimated 80,000 crimes had not been properly recorded.
Among emergency service changes being planned are having a joint control room for fire and police in Greater Manchester. Burnham also said that if there was a similar atrocity to the one committed by the suicide bomber Salman Abedi, the police force’s chief constable and the fire service’s chief officer would “be in the same room, both leading from the front, providing absolute clarity of what was expected”.
The North West ambulance service (NWAS) was also severely criticised for failings that included not sending enough paramedics, not communicating properly and not using available stretchers to remove casualties in a safe way.
The current leaders of four emergency services – police, transport police, fire and ambulance – all appeared at a briefing after publication of the report. None were in post in 2017. All four accepted the report’s findings and apologised unreservedly for their services’ failings.
They were asked by the Guardian what personal emotions they felt. Stephen Watson, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, acknowledged nothing could come close to emotions felt by the families of bereaved or survivors. But he said he felt “pretty miserable” with a combination of “real sadness, real disappointment, an element of being ashamed. But also a real, genuine determination to make sure this never happens again.”
He said he wanted to make sure “the hurt and the terrible pain that people find themselves in isn’t totally for nothing” and it galvanised him and his colleagues “to be absolutely certain that our response is first class, it is resilient and it does it what it is supposed to do in extremis”.
Dave Russel, the chief fire officer, echoed those sentiments. “I do feel saddened and I do feel ashamed,” he said.
Daren Mochrie, the chief executive of NWAS, said he felt “real sadness and disappointment that we made mistakes and we didn’t get things right for everybody on the night”. He said he knew that the feelings of “pain, loss, fear and anger” would not go away but the service had acted to address failings. “I admit that seems a little too late. Nonetheless, it’s important we do.”
Mochrie said a number of steps had been taken to initiate change and improve communication, including more rigorous and sustained training. “I am confident that if something like this happens again, the response will have more effective preparation, management and coordination between blue light partners.”