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9th April 2006

Is this what the government meant by 'the best-prepared nation in the world' for bird flu?

By David Harrison, Jasper Copping and Catherine Humble
(Filed: 09/04/2006)

Ministers were last night accused of "astonishing complacency" for ignoring calls to vaccinate poultry and farm workers if there is a serious outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus.

As farmers expressed anger over "confusing" Government advice, and the 1.2 billion poultry industry saw the first signs of a consumer backlash, food experts said birds and farm employees should be "ring-vaccinated" to contain any outbreak of the virus, confirmed in a British wild bird for the first time on Thursday.

Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, which promotes organic food, said: "The situation is frighteningly reminiscent of the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, when they left it too late and had to burn thousands of animals on giant pyres.

"Ring-vaccination of poultry on farms around an outbreak is crucial to prevent the virus spreading," he said. "It's worked in France and other countries."

Mr Holden said that senior officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had assured him a month ago that they would send him written details of ring-vaccination plans, but had failed to do so. "Either the plans are being blocked, or there is an astonishing level of complacency at high levels of Government," he said.

Last night, a Defra spokesman claimed that officials had discussed "theoretical scenarios" with the Soil Association, and would be replying "in the near future". Vaccination was "under review", but there were concerns that it would "mask" the presence of the virus, he said. However, Mr Holden said that problem could be solved by leaving "sentinel" birds unvaccinated.

As animal health officials stepped up testing of dead birds yesterday - following more than 4,000 calls from the public in two days - farmers inside the 965-square-mile "wild bird risk zone" in Scotland said they were still waiting for advice from the Government on what precautions they should take to protect their families.

Free-range poultry farmers inside the zone, who have been told to take their birds indoors, expressed concern that they would lose their free-range status if the order stayed in force for more than 12 weeks.

Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific officer, confirmed yesterday that the spread of avian flu among the wild bird population would mean more poultry flocks being kept indoors, and "organic and free-range farming would come to an end. It would change farming practices," he said.

Last week, Sir David claimed: "We're probably better prepared than any other nation and one of the reasons is because we've been through foot and mouth."

But farmers outside the risk zone criticised the Government's messages as "confusing" and full of "ridiculous jargon", and described the situation as "chaotic".

Tim Wood, 63, the owner of Blackacre Farm, in Somerset, which supplies free-range eggs to 700 stores, said: "We've been told to cover our pens with netting but my chickens run free over 75 acres. It is completely unfeasible for me to cover this whole area with wire netting. The situation is totally chaotic."

Adrian Potter, 28, the owner of Yorkshire Farmhouse Eggs, in North Yorkshire, which holds 1,000 chickens in 1,300ft-long pens, said: "Even with netting, infected bird droppings could still get into the pens." Steve Ledsham, 57, of Church Farm Organics, in Cheshire, said: "Defra has provided us with excessive amounts of information and documents, written in ridiculous technical jargon, so that we are left confused about what their advice really is."

Mr Ledsham said a party of 40 children had cancelled a visit to his farm because a mother was worried about bird flu, and last night there were signs that a consumer backlash against poultry products had begun. While most supermarket chains insisted that chicken sales had remained "steady", Morrisons reported a "slight decline".

Some restaurants said they had dropped chicken and duck from their menus. Anthony Flinn, the owner of Anthony's, in Leeds, said: "I won't be cooking poultry at the moment. Customers panic about these things."

Zoos across Britain have introduced- emergency measures, which included providing -disinfectant foot baths for visitors and installing extra nets to keep out wild birds.

More birds were sent for tests at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Surrey yesterday. They included a dead swan found in the River Test near Romsey, in Hamphire. So far no other bird has tested positive for the H5N1 strain, but experts say that it is likely that more will be found.