Fears for thousands of tower block residents after London inferno

LONDON: Tower blocks housing thousands of people across England are being urgently tested to check if their outer coverings pose a serious fire risk following the Grenfell Tower disaster, with nearly a dozen already testing positive for combustible material.

Prime Minister Theresa May said the government had arranged to test cladding on "all relevant tower blocks" following the deadly June 14 inferno.

At least 11 public housing blocks in eight locations including London and Manchester have already been found to be covered in combustible material, local government minister Sajid Javid said on Thursday in a letter to MPs.

English local authorities estimate that 600 high-rise buildings have cladding, and the race is on to establish which ones are covered in the same material that enclosed Grenfell Tower in west London.

The figure does not include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have their own powers in housing.

The panels have been widely blamed for the rapid spread of the fire which consumed the 24-storey public housing block, leaving 79 people presumed dead.

The covering may also have produced toxic gases when burning and at least three people injured in the disaster were given an anti-cyanide antidote as a precaution.

Local authorities in London's Camden neighbourhood said on Thursday they will remove cladding from five tower blocks due fire concerns, raising questions about the status of the thousands currently living in cladded blocks.

All 213 local authority blocks in Birmingham will be fitted with a sprinkler system regardless of whether the central government will pay, the city council leader John Clancy said.

Cyanide poisoning concerns

"Many others living in tall residential buildings will have concerns about their safety after what happened at Grenfell," May said in a statement to parliament.

"We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes."

The full terror awaiting firefighters at Grenfell was laid bare on Thursday by footage filmed inside a fire engine as it raced toward the tower.

They could be heard saying in the footage obtained by the BBC: "Jesus Christ, that is not a real block with people in it? How are we going (to) get in that?

"That's a whole tower block on fire... Oh my God. There's kids in there. How is that even possible?"

Downing Street declined to specify whether the Grenfell cladding was combustible or not, citing an ongoing investigation.

More than 100 buildings a day can be tested and May urged landlords to send samples for rapid assessment, and rehouse residents if necessary.

King's College Hospital in London told AFP that three of its patients from the disaster were given Cyanokit, an antidote to hydrogen cyanide poisoning, as a precaution.

Immigration reassurances

The manufacturer of the cladding, Celotex, stated that the insulation in the covering would have released "toxic gases" if it caught fire.

The National Health Service said 10 patients were still being treated in hospital, five of whom were in a critical condition.

The cladding was installed for beautification and insulation despite warnings from local residents about fire safety as part of a major refurbishment of Grenfell Tower that was completed last year.

The chief executive of the local authority, which owned the tower, quit on Thursday after fierce criticism over the council's response.

The Justice4Grenfell campaign group welcomed his departure, but London Mayor Sadiq Khan insisted that more officials from Kensington and Chelsea council should step down.

He said there was "not a chance in hell" that residents "will have the semblance of confidence in that council until they see a change in leadership".

Each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a £5,000 payment from the government.

May said 151 homes were destroyed in the fire, which includes the 120 flats in the tower as well as some adjacent residences. She added that their occupants were guaranteed new homes on the same terms, within three weeks and as close to home as possible.

"Nobody is being forced to move somewhere they don't want to go," she insisted.

May added that survivors would not be subjected to immigration checks. Many of the tower's residents were newly arrived from places like North Africa, Somalia and Syria.

"All victims, irrespective of their immigration status, will be able to access the services they need," she said.

Mayor Khan called for an amnesty for any immigrants in the country illegally who survived the blaze. — AFP