Could We Survive Plague? the Black Death Decimated Europe in the Middle Ages and a New Epidemic Is Closer Than We Think. Mike Chapple Reports

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Byline: Mike Chapple

IVERPOOL faces up to a life threatening disaster this Sunday -- and it's all in the name of gripping television.

Crisis Command is a BBC TV interactive project that gives three members of the public the chance to run the country during a potential national catastrophe.

The first one-hour programme Plague, focuses on St Mark's a fictional Liverpool hospital where an an infectious disease threatens to spread to mainland Europe.

Military, police and communications experts give advice to the three ``ministers'' as they prepare to make crucial decisions about how to handle the growing crisis. They are constantly reminded of the need for rapid, clear thinking by the presenter Gavin Hewitt and each dilemma they face has a series of action options. Only one of these options, however, has been approved by a team of professional crisis managers as being most likely to lead to a positive result with as few casualties and causing as little economic impact as possible.

Digital viewers can find out how well they would manage the crisis by using the red button on their remote control to join in.

Series producer John Hesling got the inspiration for Crisis Command from Allied Crisis Management an independent company that teaches executives how to handle crisis situations on a daily basis. They use table top exercises with no video or TV input -- just imagination -- for their scenarios.

The pilot programme was shown in February. It dealt with a terrorist attack on London, initially unsubstantiated because it is not known whether the explosions are coincidental malfunctions such as gas explosions or co-ordinated bomb attacks.

The action reaches a climax when the team has to decide whether an allegedly stricken airliner taking American oil workers from Angola to Aberdeen should be granted permission to divert to Heathrow for emergency landing.

Similarly in the Liverpool situation proceedings begin with a relatively low key alert where the ministers are told that six patients have been quarantined at St Mark's. Once the infection is diagnosed with the highly inflammatory words bubonic plague, that rapidly develops into the highly contagious pneumonic plague, the action really kicks in, ruthless decisions being needed with seconds to spare.

``We wanted people who were confident, an egocentric willing to argue their point of view as if it was the only one worth listening to, '' says Hesling of the ``ministers'' who in reality comprise two managing directors and a business consultant for the BBC2 screening.

At one stage after St Mark's has been cordoned off, the ministers are faced with the proposition of whether to authorise the use of firearms to prevent the plague's spread as video footage shows angry patients and staff trying to burst through the barricaded doors of the hospital.

The sense of real life action is compounded by the continuous use of tailored news archives and announcements, computer graphics and emotional outbursts from government advisers one of whom makes an appeal not to `bury these people alive'.

``When we set up the scenario we never knew how these members of the public would react. '' says Hesling of the unpredictable results. ``What we didn't realize is how they would get into it so quickly. ''

``It was quite extraordinary how ruthless some of them could be and how they could discount an individual's suffering in favour of looking at the bigger picture. ''

Many may look on plague as a thing of the the past and that the other Crisis Command scenarios due to be broadcast such as a high tide storm warning down the East Coast and a Moscow theatre style siege in central London as far more likely. …