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Strikes, security trouble before Olympic games

Friday, July 20, 2012    

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LONDON (AP) — There's nearly a week to go before the Olympics kick off in London and British officials are stuck playing defence.

Yesterday, the country's Olympics secretary said 1,200 extra troops were put on standby in case embarrassing manpower shortages get any worse, while UK border agents announced a strike for the day before the games begin.

The one-two punch of bad news comes with only eight days to go, unbalancing a government which might have hoped to bask in glow of pre-Olympic buildup. By far, the most embarrassing episode has been the inability of security contractor G4S PLC to deliver on its promise to supply about 10,400 guards to help keep the games safe — a last-minute admission which has forced the government to call in 3,500 soldiers to help meet the shortfall.

Speaking yesterday, Olympics Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that even that may not be enough, telling the BBC that the government put the extra 1,200 troops on standby "in the unlikely situation that G4S's performance deteriorates from where it is today."

"We want to ensure the public against every eventuality," he told Sky News earlier. "We don't expect to use them, but they will be there."

Security has been a critical concern for the Olympics ever since 11 Israeli athletes and coaches died in a terror attack at the 1972 Munich Games. A huge international media presence makes the Olympics a prime target for any terror group intent on wreaking havoc on live events broadcast worldwide, and British authorities have pegged the threat level for the London Games as "severe," meaning an attack is "highly likely."

In that context, the inability of government officials to get a proper grip with staffing issues has become a major talking point, an issue which has been compounded by industrial disputes that threaten to spawn two Olympics strikes.

One, involving about 400 train workers, threatens to disrupt services in central England from August 6 to 8. That could be a major games-related inconvenience — Olympic soccer matches are being held across the UK, while workers and Olympic tourists from outside London are relying on those routes to get into the capital.

Potentially more serious is a walkout by border guards at London's Heathrow Airport timed for July 26 — the day before the London Olympics begin. Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union voted for the 24-hour strike in a dispute over pay and job losses on Thursday, saying its members would also take other forms of industrial action, such as a ban on overtime from July 27 to Aug. 20 — a period that's expected to be one of the busiest periods ever for London's airports.

Even without the strike, London's Heathrow Airport has been beset for months by sporadic long lines at passport control, which the union blames on government spending cuts. The problem had eased in the last week as thousands of Olympic VIPs arrived for the games, but a walkout threatens a return of the endless waits at the worst possible moment for Britain's international image.

Home Secretary Theresa May, Britain's interior minister, called the decision to stage a strike on the eve of the games shameful. She said the government would "put contingency arrangements in place to ensure we can deal with people coming through the border as smoothly as possible."

During previous border guard strikes in November and May, the government drafted in managers and civil servants — including Prime Minister David Cameron's press secretary — to help staff immigration desks and minimise the disruption to incoming travelers.

With headlines dominated by bad news about strikes and security, some are wondering whether Cameron's government might have done more, and sooner, to avoid the mess.

As Hunt made his announcement about more troops, May acknowledged that officials had been warned last month about Olympic security manpower issues — far earlier than she had previously admitted.

In a letter to an opposition lawmaker Keith Vaz, May wrote that she was told of a "possible temporary shortfall" in staffing numbers by G4S as long ago as June 27 and that she had already begun marshaling military resources as a contingency.

That's far earlier than the July 11 date that May had previously mentioned to lawmakers in Britain's House of Commons.

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