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Avian Influenza

12.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): On Friday, my Department announced that we had identified a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in birds held in quarantine. After further analysis by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, we announced on Sunday that the virus was H5N1. We now consider that the virus was found in samples taken from two birds—one Pionus parrot and one Mesia. The closest match is a strain identified in ducks in China earlier this year.

There has been no reported occurrence of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the United Kingdom since 1992. The premises in which this event occurred contained two consignments of exotic birds from Surinam and Taiwan. At this stage, we cannot say for sure where the virus originated, but our working hypothesis, taking account of the identification of the strain, is that the virus is most likely to have come via Taiwan. However, it is important to keep an open mind about other possible sources and we are doing exactly that.

As the House knows, the birds in the quarantine premises were culled by officers from the local animal health office on Friday evening. All those at the premises who may have come into contact with diseased birds were given antiviral treatment to protect them against risk of infection.

Since Friday, we have been investigating the sequence of events that led to the death of the birds. As we announced on Sunday, some birds had already died in quarantine before 16 October. Thirty-two of those birds were being held in a freezer. Initial tests, which have not yet been validated, identified that H5 is present in some of those birds. We have not yet established the full circumstances of those deaths. However, our standard instructions on deaths in quarantine state:

That is, of course, where the tests are carried out.

Our investigations will continue and we will of course bring our findings to the attention of the House as early as possible. Meanwhile, we are taking certain prudent steps to ensure that our protection against avian influenza is as secure as possible. First, I want to underline the fact that this incident has demonstrated both the threat posed by avian influenza and the controls that we have in place to meet that threat. The quarantine system provided the protection that it is intended to deliver. That is not a reason for complacency, but it is right that we should recognise the swift and effective action that was taken once the disease had been identified. It also means that our disease-free status on avian flu remains unaffected.

The incident took place against a background of increasing reported outbreaks of avian influenza in wild birds. Since July, we have seen outbreaks first in an area of Russia and then in Romania and Turkey. There have been other confirmed and suspected cases in some of those countries and in Croatia. We are taking those developments very seriously, but I should perhaps stress
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that they are not in themselves a cause for undue alarm. Avian flu does not at present transmit easily to humans. But there is concern about the potential for avian influenza viruses to mutate into new forms that might directly affect humans.

Such transmission has not yet happened and indeed may never happen, but there is good reason to be very vigilant against the establishment of avian flu. I stress that avian flu is a disease of birds and that we receive a number of reports of suspected cases in any normal year, and for the obvious reason that people are being particularly cautious we have received more than normal this year.

Moreover, we in the UK and more generally in the European Union have worked to establish a good level of preparedness. Our contingency plan for avian flu was laid before Parliament in July. We regularly exercise the contingency arrangements nationally and locally, and our recent experience of managing a Newcastle disease outbreak demonstrated the fundamental soundness of those arrangements for dealing with a disease outbreak in birds, but we will continue to build on that good level of preparedness.

In response to the specific incident that has occurred in quarantine, we issued instructions to the state veterinary service at the weekend that releases of birds from quarantine should now be subject to a case-by-case risk assessment. We understand that there are about 15 consignments of birds currently in quarantine. Each of those will be subjected to an individual veterinary risk assessment and referred to DEFRA headquarters before any decision to release is authorised.

At the weekend, the chief veterinary officer and I ordered that a general review of our quarantine arrangements and procedures be undertaken. Pending the outcome of that review, we have called on the European Commission to propose an immediate temporary ban on imports of live birds into the EU while we collectively assess the risk that they pose. I am pleased to say that the Commission responded very positively to that call, and a ban lasting until 30 November was agreed in the relevant EU Standing Committee yesterday.

At the same time, we are especially mindful of the potential threat posed by illegal imports. My Department already works closely with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs on the control of illegal imports of animals and animal products, and I have asked my officials immediately to address how we can increase our vigilance against the specific issue of illegal imports of live birds. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who has responsibility for rural affairs, landscape and biodiversity, will also take up the issue of illegal trade at an EU wildlife trade enforcement event tomorrow.

We were already working actively with the Commission and other member states to tackle the wider threat of the introduction of avian influenza by migrating wildfowl and other routes. As a result of that work, I expect to bring before the House within the coming days sensible and measured regulations that will assist us in reducing the risk of disease and strengthening our ability to control an outbreak. Those regulations will implement the announcement that we made last
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week about establishing a register of all commercial poultry producers in the country. As we said then, we shall start that process of registration next month.

For non-commercial poultry keepers, we have produced a simple, clear and, I hope, effective guide to biosecurity, and we are actively distributing that guide through lobby groups, veterinary networks, hobby magazines and other available channels. We have also decided, with fellow member states, that in the present circumstances it is desirable to prohibit bird fairs, markets and shows, except where a risk assessment shows that they can be safely conducted. We are in full discussion of that proposal with potentially affected stakeholders.

Ornithological groups are also very important stakeholders for us, and earlier this month we reached an agreement with them jointly to monitor wild birds. That is, of course, in addition to our existing annual programme of monitoring domestic poultry for avian influenza that is already under way.

The regulations that we will bring before Parliament will give legal effect to the provisions in recent legislation that enable us to instruct poultry keepers to keep their birds indoors, and we are urgently discussing that provision with stakeholders.

In conclusion, I recognise that the public are rightly concerned about avian flu. I am pleased that our quarantine rules worked to identify and eradicate the immediate risk in this incident, but because we are not complacent we are taking the steps that I have indicated both to review and strengthen our protection against legal and illegal imports of captive wild birds, and in the next few days we will introduce the new regulations that I have described.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for making available an early copy of her statement and for the technical briefing that her officials provided us with yesterday. I welcome unreservedly the ban on commercial live bird imports that she has announced today, but I have some questions about the past and some questions about the future. I shall start with the past.

First, why did the Secretary of State and her Ministers for six months strenuously resist EU proposals to impose a ban on commercial wild bird imports? Secondly, in her statement she admitted that despite press briefings over the weekend she does not currently know whether the infected bird was a parrot, whether it came from Surinam or whether it was infected by a bird from Taiwan. This is horribly reminiscent of the confusion over sheep and cattle material for which she apologised to the House in 2001. Can she explain how she and her Ministers have for many months presided over quarantine procedures so lax that birds from different continents are kept together, test samples are pooled and there is no clarity in her Department about the true implication of the tests?

Thirdly, when we surveyed poultry concerns we discovered that fewer than half could recall proactive steps by the Department or any other intermediary body to inform them fully about avian flu. Why, after months
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of reports about the problem, have the Secretary of State and her Ministers failed to take such proactive steps to inform the poultry sector?

I turn to the future. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure the proper separation of birds still in quarantine, to which she referred, and to provide proper polymerase chain reaction testing for poultry flocks? Can she guarantee that the compensation paid to farmers for slaughtered flocks will be sufficiently generous to give incentives for full reporting? How will controls at ports of entry be increased to prevent the smuggling of wild birds once the ban is in place? How will commercial imports be distinguished from pet imports, which are merely being restricted? Who within her Department will be accountable for ensuring that any outbreak in the poultry flock is fully and immediately contained?

In the light of past serious failures and the confusion and inactivity surrounding recent events, the House has a right to an assurance from the Secretary of State that from now on it will no longer be business as usual. We do not want to see her Department once again rendered impotent in the face of disaster and the Army brought in to clear up the mess.

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