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Avian Influenza

4. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con) : What recent assessment she has made of the efficacy of vaccinating poultry against avian influenza. [57022]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The scientific advice is that the vaccines currently available would not provide the most efficacious way of dealing with a bird flu outbreak. Early identification, containment and eradication are considered the best way of dealing with such an outbreak.

Patrick Mercer: I am most grateful to the Minister for his courteous reply, but in Newark and Retford many
 
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poultry farmers and breeders have received conflicting advice, from all sorts of different sources, about whether or not they should vaccinate, yet few of them have received any official guidance from DEFRA. As a result there is complete and utter confusion. Can the Government put an end to it, please?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am sorry if some of the hon. Gentleman's poultry keepers and breeders feel confused. Without more detail, I do not know who is giving them conflicting advice, but the advice from the Government—from the chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, downwards—has been absolutely clear, and that is, as I said in my initial reply, that the vaccines currently available are not considered the most efficacious way of dealing with a disease outbreak.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend clarify the situation in the EU, as there seems to have been a breakdown in the pan-EU approach to avian influenza? Are countries that are vaccinating at present intending to cull later, or do they believe that the vaccinated poultry will be protected?

Mr. Bradshaw: The European Commission has granted limited consent to the Netherlands and France to vaccinate on a pilot basis, in extremely limited circumstances. In the case of France, for example, vaccination is happening in only two of the three regions that applied for it, owing to resistance from the industry and the public. In answer to the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I expect that both the Netherlands and France hope that a vaccination programme might avoid the need to cull in the event of an outbreak, but our advice is that that scenario is extremely unlikely.

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Local authorities will inevitably have a key role in tackling any outbreak of avian influenza, so what advice are they being given on how they should advise and protect the public, and what resources will be supplied to enable them to carry out that work?

Mr. Bradshaw: Local authority emergency planning departments are intricately involved in all the discussions and preparations across Government, involving not just our Department but the Department of Health, and local authorities will be involved in the forthcoming contingency exercise. They should be well aware of their roles; the information is available and is given to them, but if the hon. Gentleman has evidence that they are not quite sure what they should do in the event of an outbreak he should let me know, because there is no excuse for that.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the Minister's observations about the limited vaccination of poultry in France and the Netherlands, will he tell the House what conditions and limits we shall impose on the trade in vaccinated birds and their products from those two countries?

Mr. Bradshaw: The advice from the Food Standards Agency is that there is no problem with the consumption of birds that have been vaccinated. Of course there are restrictions on importing birds from areas in the
 
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immediate vicinity of the outbreak in south-east France. Trade controls on avian flu are on a regional basis, from which we could benefit, as we did last year when there was a case of Newcastle disease in this country. Exports were restricted from the area concerned, but it would not be sensible, or in accordance with sound veterinary advice, were we to ban exports on a national basis in the case of AI.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): While I much appreciate the limitations of vaccination, particularly in the short term, what education have we received from countries where vaccination has been practised widely? I refer particularly to countries in Asia where vaccination is taking place in large numbers. Have we anything to learn? Will the Minister put some information in the public domain so that the public may be reassured?

Mr. Bradshaw: The simple answer is that the lessons are mixed. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that some countries—notably China, where there is a serious problem of endemic AI, both in wild birds and in poultry—have gone down the route of vaccination. Scientific opinion is mixed on whether that is a sensible thing to do. Three other countries in Asia which have not received so much publicity—Malaysia, Japan and South Korea—have all had outbreaks of AI in the past few years. They are all in a region where AI is endemic in wild birds. They have dealt with the problem through containment and eradication. They have not vaccinated. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that the evidence is mixed.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): When the first case was confirmed across the channel in France there was great anxiety in the industry in the UK, and even more so because the doom-and-gloom merchants said that cases would arrive on these shores within two or three days. How much contact has my hon. Friend had with his counterparts in the Scottish Executive on this matter?

Mr. Bradshaw: We have worked extremely closely with all of the devolved Administrations. My hon. Friend is right to say that although we should not in any circumstances be complacent about AI, the outbreak in Lyon was some weeks ago and there has been no further geographical spread since then. It is still the only outbreak in poultry in the EU. However, there is no room for complacency. We must remain extremely vigilant. We do, as my hon. Friend requests, work closely with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am afraid that there is much confusion in the country. Only last week the Prime Minister said that vaccination is not effective in stopping the spread of the disease, but experience in Hong Kong—a properly validated scientific exercise—has shown that vaccinated birds do not transmit the disease. It appears that we have a Government policy of no vaccination, yet the Government have an imminent delivery of Nobilis vaccine for use in zoos. At the same time there is increasing doubt about whether other outdoor birds
 
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could be housed. We do not want a repeat of what happened during the foot and mouth outbreak, when halfway through the disaster the Government began to consider vaccination. Will the Minister now guarantee that the Government's present policy will not change, or must the uncertainty continue?

Mr. Bradshaw: No, that is a ludicrous suggestion; of course we must be flexible. The evidence must be studied and we must take account of changing circumstances. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the situation in the poultry industry in Hong Kong is completely different from that in this country, as it is across the channel in the Netherlands. As he has raised what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week, I remind him that Sir David King was grossly misrepresented on one broadcast last week about his view of vaccination. It may help the House if I read the brief statement that he issued in response to that. It was that his advice to Government remains