An armed police unit which would play a vital role in a terrorist emergency is plagued by high levels of absenteeism blamed on bad backs, sickness and stress.
Ministers are monitoring the problems in the Ministry of Defence police, which guards military bases but has been lined up to deploy in the event of a “marauding terrorist” gun attack.
Police chiefs and senior military leaders are discussing how to enhance Britain’s armed policing response to an event such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January.
Operational commanders recently visited France to learn how police and military units worked together in the manhunt that followed.
Cuts have led to a fall in armed officer numbers and contingency plans include wider deployment of units such as the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, which protects nuclear power stations, and the MoD police. There are 8,000 firearms officers across all UK forces and there is already greater collaboration between different units. In a critical situation, soldiers might be deployed after intensive training. The MoD police has the largest armed police unit outside of the Metropolitan police. Its officers were deployed during the 2012 Olympic Games, the G8 summit in Northern Ireland and the Nato summit in Wales.
However, Whitehall has concerns about the ability of the force to respond to a terrorist emergency and the unit’s chief constable, Alf Hitchcock, is under pressure to deliver improvements.
The 2013-14 annual report of the MoD police committee spoke of “unacceptably high levels of sickness” and said the unit had “limited resilience to rise to any additional exceptional challenge”. The most common cause of absence was muscle and bone ailments (27.7 per cent), followed by anxiety, depression or stress (16.1 per cent).
Sources claim that one problem faced by officers, many of whom were working long overtime to cover for ill colleagues, was the impact of carrying heavy weapons and wearing bulky protective equipment for long periods.
A spokesman for the MoD police, which has 2,600 officers, said: “We have taken steps towards more effective sickness and absence management. The number of officers on long-term sick is reducing — down from 138 officers to 77 over the past 18 months.”