Key Points:

The growing fear of knife crime in Britain is forcing hospital trusts and local authorities to supply body armour to frontline staff, including accident and emergency staff, hospital porters, teachers, benefit officers and traffic wardens.

Stab- and bulletproof vests are being ordered in their tens of thousands to protect employees from increased levels of violence, a move that has been described as "a shameful indictment of violence in Britain today".

The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils had started responding urgently to staff who "need a greater level of protection".

Already more than 20,000 sets of Home Office-approved body armour have been issued to local government staff.

The revelations came as Scotland Yard announced knife crime had eclipsed terrorism as the main priority for the London Metropolitan Police.

It followed a week in which the latest stabbing deaths included two 16-year-olds: Shakilus Townsend, who died begging for his mother after being stabbed during the day on a South London street; and Ben Kinsella, who was knifed outside a party to celebrate the end of his school exams.

A senior Scotland Yard homicide detective said: "Once councils start resorting to this, it can only be interpreted as a shameful indictment of violence in Britain. Everybody must be asking: when are we going to start tackling this properly?"

In an attempt to curb the growing menace, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, is to introduce guidelines encouraging doctors routinely to report stabbing cases, after concerns were expressed that many knife offences were not being reported to police. The move confirms fears that official crime figures are much lower than the actual number of offences, which may lead to experts dangerously underestimating the scale of knife crime in major cities.

Mike Walsh, a consultant trauma surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, said London doctors were dealing with more stabbings than their counterparts in New York.

His own hospital had treated more than 250 stabbing and shooting victims in 2006 and, if the current trajectory of this year's caseload continued, it would be more than 300 for 2008. His comments came as the LGA vowed it was taking "all the necessary steps to ensure staff are safe" by ordering body armour for those deemed most at risk.

Oxfordshire-based Body Armour Company said it had received about 10,000 orders for protective vests from local government, with frontline staff in the tax-funded National Health Service accounting for the bulk of them.

The most popular item requested by councils is the £300 ($783) Home Office-approved KR1 stab vest, designed for "high-risk environments". The firm announced it had also started to receive more orders for body armour from teachers, whom it views as its "biggest growth market".

Peter Warren, a company spokesman, said: "More and more councils are becoming aware of the need for armour and protecting their staff. We have had many private inquiries from teachers and the rate is going up.

"Headmasters are aware teachers are at risk and knife crime is getting worse."

Experts believe that councils are responding to new corporate manslaughter laws, which came into effect last April and mean that organisations that fail to adequately protect employees may be prosecuted.

Tomorrow, body armour firms will meet staff from the Royal Parks authority, which maintains the green spaces of London, to discuss supplying stab vests to protect its 120 staff.

Warren added that an order had also been placed by a railway operator for "ballistics body armour" to protect workers.

- OBSERVER

MEAN STREETS

* 14,000 people taken to hospital in Britain for injuries caused by knives and other sharp weapons last year.

* 1200 people arrested for knife crime in London since May and 500 knives confiscated.

* 38 victims of knife wounds admitted to A&E across the country every day, according to Department of Health statistics.

* 14 fatal stabbings of teenagers in London since the start of the year.

* 324 under-16s in London needed hospital treatment for stab wounds in 2006-07 compared with 139 in 2002-03.

Source: Independent, Observer