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3Novices:Towers in England face checks for flammable exteriors

LONDON // Tower blocks housing thousands of people across England are being urgently tested to check if their cladding poses a serious fire risk following the Grenfell Tower disaster, as the government on Thursday blamed decades of neglect.

Prime minister Theresa May said the government had arranged to test cladding on "all relevant tower blocks" following the deadly June 14 inferno, with at least seven public housing blocks already found to be covered in combustible material.

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 autonomous 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.

They 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.

Camden Council in London on Thursday said it will remove cladding from five tower blocks over fire concerns, raising questions about the status of the thousands currently living in cladded tower blocks.

"Many others living in tall residential buildings will have concerns about their safety after what happened at Grenfell," Mrs 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 approached the tower.

Seeing the entire building ablaze, the stunned firemen asked how such an inferno could happen.

They could be heard saying: "That is not a real block with people in it? How are we going 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 cladding on the tower block was combustible or not, citing an ongoing investigation.

More than 100 buildings a day can be tested and Mrs May urged landlords to send samples for rapid assessment.

She said landlords were expected to provide people with alternative accommodation if buildings were found to be unsafe.

King's College Hospital in London said three of its patients from the disaster were given the hydrogen cyanide poisoning antidote Cyanokit as a precaution.

Manufacturer Celotex stated that the insulation in the cladding 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.

Mrs May said there were now around 600 people working by the site to provide support to victims and so far there had been 500 visits to the centre.

Each family whose home was destroyed was receiving a £5,000 (5,700-euro, $6,300) downpayment.

The tower itself contained 120 flats. Mrs May said 151 homes had been destroyed and 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.

* ​Agence France-Presse
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