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UK 'not doing enough' on bird flu

British officials are not doing enough to stop bird flu from coming into the country, some experts have claimed.

Virologist John Oxford said the UK was equipped to deal with an outbreak, but officials were "not prepared to act to stop one coming in the first place".

Earlier, ministers warned the public and poultry farmers to be "extra vigilant" in reporting bird deaths.

Animal health minister Ben Bradshaw revealed that seven dead swans had tested negative in the last 24 hours.

The rise in prominence of the disease followed France's announcement of its first case of the H5N1 strain, which can be deadly when passed on to humans.

Chemist retailer Boots has revealed it is to train staff in recognising the human symptoms of avian flu to assist customers with their enquiries.

Prof Oxford, from the Queen Mary's School of Medicine in London, told the BBC the government should act to prevent contact between wild and domestic birds.

He said: "Some countries in Europe are better organised, I think, and those countries are particularly Holland and France.

"Now the situation here is a bit more tricky really.

"They're very well organised, I think, the Ministry of Agriculture here possibly for dealing with an outbreak, but the great gaping chasm seems to me they're not prepared to act to stop one coming in the first place."

'Inevitable'

Disaster advice consultant Jeff Charlton echoed these concerns and said Britain needed to be more proactive in its fight against the virus.

"Let's put our stock inside poultry farms now, under cover, so that our poultry industry isn't decimated," he said.

The United Nations' special co-ordinator on bird flu, David Nabarro, said it was inevitable it would arrive in the UK and it could possibly exist already.

"We do find in other countries that it's often been around for some days, perhaps even weeks before we actually notice bird die-offs," he said.

But Mr Bradshaw said the risk of the virus arriving in the UK was "still low".

He said he thought officials would have detected the virus if it had reached the UK as an intensive survey of wild birds had been carried out.

"We've tested thousands of birds through the winter months. We've tested, for example, seven swans who've been found dead in the last 24 hours and all of them have been found negative".

About 3,500 birds have been tested in the UK since October.

The H5N1 strain has killed dozens of people in Asia, the vast majority following very close contact with sick birds.

But some scientists fear it could mutate so that it could be passed easily from person to person.

Defra helpline is 08459 33 55 77