The Olympics security contractor had no hope of meeting the requirement, writes Karen Kissane in London.
For those trying to organise security for the London Olympics, the blame games are already up and running.
Gloomier Londoners already viewed the Games as an ordeal to be endured with the kind of British stoicism displayed during the Blitz. The chaos around security, however, is of an entirely different order. It opens the way to catastrophe.
In the past 10 days, Britain and the world have learnt that the Games has a shortfall of 3500 security guards as well as problems notifying existing guards when and where they are to report for work. Only 30 of an expected 300 officers turned up to guard cyclists. Only 10 of 58 arrived to guard footballers; 20 of 58 were at the main Olympic hotel; and none turned up for an induction day at Coventry Stadium (70 expected).
“It’s a lottery as to how many staff are going to turn up,” Clive Chamberlain, chairman of Dorset Police Federation, told The Guardian. “It’s a fiasco, an absolute debacle.”
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, at the centre of a political firestorm over the mess, claims the government knew nothing of the crisis until told last week by G4S, the company hired to provide Games security. She has called in 3500 emergency personnel, including sailors, airmen and police, to fill the shortfall.
Another 2000 might be needed, but the government is fending off that embarrassment, despite warnings from defence chiefs that notice is required if troops are wanted at the opening ceremony next Friday. This would bring the total military involved in the Games, planned and unplanned, to 19,000.
GS4’s chief executive, Nick Buckles, copped a grilling by MPs this week in which he admitted he couldn’t guarantee he could supply even the 7000 guards now required at his tattered end of the bargain. He said he could not predict the scale of “no-shows” until recruits failed to respond to an email. He also could not promise that all the guards would speak fluent English: “I don’t know what fluent English is.”
Asked by an MP whether the debacle was a “humiliating shambles”, Buckles admitted, “I would have to agree with you.”
G4S has had £400 million ($600 million) wiped off its market value and is predicting it will make a £50 million loss on the Games contract. But it is insisting on its £57 million “management fee”.
How did it come to this?
It appears computer glitches at G4S sent recruits to the wrong venues or supplied them with incorrect schedules.
There also seems to be a larger than expected number of casual employees who have lost interest or found another job.
However, May said the company had been assuring ministers it would “overshoot” the recruitment targets in its £284 million contract. This is at odds with an internal Home Office memo, revealed this week by The Sunday Times, that warned in April, “We will very soon start to see big shortfalls against planned numbers.”
Part of the problem is governmental dithering.
Last December, fully six years after London won the Games, the government had a last-minute rush of blood to the head over security issues and dramatically amped up the brief to G4S from 2000 guards (in a contract signed in December 2010) to 13,700 guards.
The tardiness was despite the fact that London was hit by the 7/7 suicide bomb attacks the day after winning the race for the Olympics in 2005. Defence chiefs had offered to provide Games security but the government decided outsourcing to a private company would be better.
Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Commons public accounts committee, said: “It is outrageous. [The organisers] knew in 2005 that security was going to be a major challenge but they left it too late.”
There also have been concerns about the quality of recruits. G4S, which won the contract partly because it had provided security for the Olympics site during construction, has also protected the Wimbledon tennis championships.
A security consultant who went undercover for the company at Wimbledon last year wrote a report listing alarming lapses.
These included some staff lacking even “the most basic security knowledge” needed to guard a significant terrorism target; staff routinely leaving premises unprotected by sleeping on the job; and some recruits being allowed to skip hearing and smell tests designed to check that they were able to notice fires or explosions.
The security consultant who wrote the report, Peter Bleksley, is a former Scotland Yard detective. He warned that the problems could “eventually prove catastrophic for G4S” and some were so serious they could have “fatal consequences” if they were not fixed before the Games.
Buckles claims those concerns were taken on board and dealt with, but one whistleblower has claimed the company has been forced to resort to a “no-fail policy” for recruits in the current crisis.
Despite the torrent of bad publicity, Games chief Sebastian Coe has promised safety will not be compromised: “My responsibility is to make sure that we get a Games that is safe and secure. We will do that, and it is to make sure that our teams, the Home Office and the military sit alongside G4S and mobilise and deploy exactly who we need to.”
It will certainly be one of the most militarised Olympics ever, with missiles poised and jets on hand and the Royal Navy’s largest warship deployed to launch military helicopters.
All that might prove of little use if a terrorist slips through the net at Heathrow Airport. The Observer reported that suspects had been able to enter Britain in the run-up to the Games without being picked up by security checks. A senior border officer said inexperienced recruits were repeatedly failing to refer passengers on a watch list to counter-terrorism officers.
First published in The Age.