A senior police officer in charge of an infamous training drill, which foreshadowed delays getting firefighters to the Manchester Arena attack, faced criticism after admitting she was unaware of any problems with the exercise at the time.
The emergency services took part in a huge terrorism training exercise, in which a suicide bomber scenario was played out at the Trafford Centre in May, 2016, a year before the real attack at the Arena.
But Greater Manchester Police failed to alert fellow blue light colleagues about the fictional marauding terror strike as planned.
It meant firefighters and paramedics arrived at the shopping city more than two hours late.
The same problem resurfaced in May 2017 when Salman Abedi detonated his device at Manchester Arena and it took firefighters two hours to reach the venue. Only one paramedic was in the blast zone in the 40 minutes after the explosion
Some 22 people died and hundreds of others were seriously hurt amid desperate calls for help in dealing with the casualties.
Today (Monday) as the continuing public inquiry into the atrocity resumed, the senior police officer who was the ‘gold commander’ in charge of the Trafford Centre drill in 2016, Catherine Hankinson, admitted she didn’t know about the frustrations of fellow blue light agencies at the time and nor did she learn about them in two subsequent ‘debriefs’.
The force duty officer during the May 2017 attack, Dale Sexton, quickly became ‘overburdened’ with tasks and did not inform the other emergency services he had invoked Operation Plato, the plan initiated over fears of a continuing marauding terror strike.
A new version of the Plato plan actually placed more pressure on the force duty officer while ‘action cards’ for dealing with a bomb attack had not been properly ’embedded’ by the time of the attack, the inquiry has heard.
The Trafford Centre training exercise, it has been said, had highlighted the pressure placed on the force duty officer of GMP but was not addressed.
During the drill, no police commander met counterparts from the fire and ambulance services at the scene while efforts were concentrated on finding a number of terrorist players.
Then a temporary Assistant Chief Constable at GMP responsible for ‘specialist operations’, Catherine Hankinson, was forced to answer criticism both from the inquiry chairman and a QC representing bereaved families.
The chairman, Sir John Saunders, suggested to the witness that members of the public following the inquiry would think it ‘extraordinary’ that people ‘on the ground’ knew about the problems which emerged from the Trafford Centre training exercise but she did not.
“Yes, perhaps, I think that’s a fair comment,” said ACC Hankinson, now an officer at West Yorkshire Police.
“Why only perhaps?” asked Sir John.
The witness said: “There’s a difference between overburdened and overwhelmed and someone who’s going to be very busy and under significant challenge if a situation like that arises.
“I suppose it’s about support around the (force duty officer) as opposed to their specific role being overwhelmed and overburdened which suggests an inability to cope which I don’t think is the sense I got,” said the ACC, who left GMP just a few days before the arena attack.
ACC Hankinson admitted she could not recall the ‘hot debrief’ with an official from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary on November 3, 2016, over concerns about how GMP and other forces could cope with a terror strike.
But after reading notes in her daybook and an email sent that evening she ‘didn’t get the sense’ the concern was about the force duty officer becoming overwhelmed but instead ‘resilience around that’.
Pressed further by Sir John, the witness said she thought work was already underway in connection with ‘action cards’ and that she thought the ‘very clear inference’ was that these concerns had been ‘flagged’ in other forces too and she believed ‘a national response will follow’.
The officer said she was not aware at the time that the new version of the Op Plato plan placed even more burdens on the force duty officer role at GMP.
Questioned by Pete Weatherby QC, representing bereaved families, ACC Hankinson agreed it was her role to provide strategic oversight as the gold commander of the Trafford Centre training exercise in 2016.
The inquiry was shown a note in her day book she made ahead of the exercise and the witness agreed it made no mention of the other emergency services.
The chairman, Sir John, interjected and asked, again, why it was she appeared to be unaware of the delay in getting the other emergency services to the exercise.
ACC Hankinson said: “The (force duty officer) and tactical firearms commander and other people in silver control will be there, co-located and having discussions and sharing intelligence and getting that shared intelligence picture…
“I would have expected, had there been that significant issue raised in that room, it would have found its way to me but it didn’t. I can’t really explain anything more about that. Sorry.”
Mr Weatherby suggested to the witness the ‘buck stops with you’.
“Had I realised there were any issues, they would have been dealt with on the night,” said ACC Hankinson.
The QC suggested she should have realised but the witness repeated that no-one told her – the senior officers were on the fourth floor of GMP’s HQ while the control room for the exercise was on the third floor.
He said she should have known as gold commander of the exercise.
“I understand your point and the buck stops with gold,” she admitted.
Mr Weatherby suggested it was ‘completely unacceptable’ that she did not know of the problems which emerged during the exercise and was still not aware of them during two debriefs which took place within days of the drill.
ACC Hankinson said: “I did as much as I could.”
The witness went on that she could not explain why she didn’t know of these problems.
The QC said it had been an ‘unacceptable failure’ by the witness in her role as gold commander and a senior officer to not realise ‘something had gone terribly wrong with the system and that you were apparently in the dark about the failures’.
ACC Hankinson said: “It certainly would have assisted had I known that, absolutely.”
She went on that the primary objective on the night of the training exercise was for the force duty officer to ‘neutralise the threat’ but she insisted from her point of view ‘partnership working was important’.
The chairman, Sir John, asked whether the problem was in making such exercises ‘realistic’, and that if it had been a real incident she would have been asking ‘have they got the casualties out?’.
“Yes, I’m sure I would. Certainly after reading and listening to the evidence, of course. Absolutely,” said ACC Hankinson.
Questioned by Richard Horwell QC, representing GMP, the witness said no-one at either debrief mentioned that the force duty officer was or could have been overwhelmed.
Sir John again pressed the witness on the ‘serious and fundamental’ delay of two and half hours in getting firefighters and paramedics to the Trafford Centre.
ACC Hankinson said she recalled there were ‘a number of offenders’ in different locations and that there was a delay while firearms officers and the military cleared the Trafford Centre.
Questioned further by Sir John, she agreed the delay was a ‘serious problem’.
Police were forced to apologise shortly after the Trafford Centre drill because the fake suicide bomber had shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ during a simulated terrorist attack.