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5 Feb 2007 : Column 573

Avian Influenza Outbreak

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the outbreak of avian influenza in Suffolk. Just after 5 pm on Thursday 1 February, the state veterinary service was contacted by a private vet who suspected an avian notifiable disease at a poultry farm in Suffolk. The farm near Upper Holton held 159,000 turkeys housed in 22 sheds. The vet raised concerns because deaths were taking place in one shed, containing 7,000 birds, beyond the normal frequency and rate.

My Department promptly enforced legal restrictions on the farm, so that no birds, people or equipment could move off those premises, preventing any possible spread of the disease. Arrangements were quickly made for a veterinary officer from the local animal health office to inspect the premises and take samples for testing by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey.

Preliminary results were received late Friday evening indicating the presence of avian influenza of the H5 strain. At that stage, the pathogenicity of the virus was not known. My Department issued a press notice and alerted the poultry industry, stakeholders and the European Commission. In line with contingency planning arrangements, local and national disease control centres were established.

Further tests were carried out overnight, and based on the results received on Saturday morning, Fred Landeg, the deputy chief veterinary officer, confirmed the presence of H5N1 avian influenza. We imposed a 3 km protection zone and 10 km surveillance zone around the infected premises, to restrict movements of poultry and require their isolation from wild birds in those areas. In addition, we banned all bird gatherings—including fairs, markets, shows and races—across England, Scotland and Wales. The Great Britain poultry register was used to issue text alerts to all those registered.

By Saturday afternoon, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency had completed further tests and were able to confirm that this was the highly pathogenic H5N1 Asian strain, which has spread widely in recent years. My officials had been working closely with our established group of ornithological experts to establish what a proportionate and risk-based response would be to such a finding. Based on their advice, my Department imposed a wider restricted zone covering east Suffolk and south-east Norfolk, an area of about 2,090 sq km. Within that zone, we are requiring poultry and other captive birds to be housed or, if that is not possible, to be isolated from contact with wild birds. The Opposition and local MPs were kept informed by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare.

On the infected premises, the humane slaughter of all the remaining birds began on Saturday under the supervision of the state veterinary service—once the Health Protection Agency had taken all necessary steps, through medication and protective clothing, to assure the health and safety of those carrying out that work. I attended a meeting of the civil contingencies committee—known as Cobra—this morning and can
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report to the House that we expect the culling to be completed today. Once the birds are slaughtered, the carcases are being transported under escort in sealed leak-proof lorries to a plant in Staffordshire where they are being rendered. Rendering involves the crushing and grinding of carcases, followed by heat treatment in a sealed vessel to reduce the moisture content and to kill micro-organisms. The leftover product from the rendering of the birds is then incinerated to ensure total destruction. There is full protection for workers at the site and the general public in the surrounding area.

The Department of Health and the Health Protection Agency have been fully involved in our response throughout. All the people involved have been issued with personal protection equipment and are being offered the antiviral drug Tamiflu and seasonal human flu vaccination. In addition, seasonal flu vaccination has been available for poultry workers since early January. The risk to the general public is judged by health experts to be negligible. In particular, the Food Standards Agency advises that there is no risk in eating any sort of properly cooked poultry, including turkey, and eggs.

At this stage, we do not know how the disease arrived in Suffolk. A full epidemiological report will be produced by our experts as soon as possible and made publicly available. The state veterinary service is carrying out rapid and urgent investigations both on the infected premises themselves and by testing poultry farms and collecting dead wild birds in the protection and surveillance zones. Outside the restricted zones, our programme of wild bird surveillance continues, with 4,000 birds having been tested in the last five months alone. I urge keepers of birds to be vigilant and to exercise good biosecurity. In particular, it is important that they act quickly and contact their local animal health office if they suspect disease.

From Friday afternoon, we have been working with the European Commission and leaders of the poultry industry and retail organisations, consulting them on the decisions that we have been taking and jointly tackling practical issues as they arise. That is in addition to my Department’s regular communications with the wider poultry stakeholder community through e-mail, telephone conferencing and the website. We have also been in direct contact with poultry keepers using the text messaging system of the Great Britain poultry register. Further written communication will be issued today.

Experience from previous outbreaks in Europe, and in this country in the past, has shown that in all cases where disease was found in domestic poultry, the rapid action taken to restrict movements, to house birds and, above all, to cull all the birds on the infected premises, has eradicated the disease without further spread. I am satisfied that the response in this case has been rapid, well co-ordinated and appropriate. Contingency planning arrangements have been developed over the last five years in an open way. The first avian influenza-specific plan was published in March 2004. These plans are updated on a regular basis—most recently in the updated plan that was published last December and which is available on the web—and thus far they have proven their worth. Our goals in this case are clear: to stamp out the disease, to protect public health, to protect animal health and welfare, and to regain disease-free
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status for the UK. I would like to record my thanks to all those who have worked so hard since Thursday evening from across Departments, delivery partners and the poultry industry, at the local, regional and national level, to help to achieve those goals as soon as possible.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for the statement and for advance sight of it. I also thank him for the open and responsible way in which he and his Ministers have kept the Opposition informed of progress and have kept in touch with local Members. Clearly, this is a blow to the poultry industry, but it is vital that it does not become a crisis. I agree with the Secretary of State’s four goals, set out at the end of his statement, and I suggest one more: to reassure the public that eating poultry is entirely safe. Is he in touch with retailers, for example, about that?

I join the Secretary of State in thanking all those involved in handling this problem for their hard and, no doubt in some cases, distressing work. Will he join me in congratulating Suffolk police, Suffolk county council and Waveney district council on demonstrating a high level of co-operation and on their efficient response to the problem?

The Government’s chief scientist has said that we are better prepared for an outbreak of avian flu than any other nation. Bernard Matthews has also said that it works to the highest levels of biosecurity. Does that not make the causes of the outbreak all the more puzzling? Does not the Secretary of State share my concern that one of his Ministers has already said that we may never know the exact cause? Does it not make it extremely difficult to know whether the Government are taking appropriate action to prevent further outbreaks if we do not know how the disease got here in the first place?

It has been suggested that the outbreak may be related to wild birds, but has there been any increase in the number of dead birds being reported in the last five months? What plans does the Secretary of State have to step up the surveillance efforts? Does he think it purely a coincidence that a Bernard Matthews-owned farm in Hungary should recently have been hit by H5NI? What steps is he taking to eliminate the Hungarian connection from the inquiries?

The right hon. Gentleman states that following the notification to the state veterinary service on 1 February, arrangements were quickly made for a veterinary officer to attend and take samples. Will he be more specific as to what “quickly” means here—within a couple of hours or the following day?

The Secretary of State will be aware that in this part of Suffolk there are many people who keep a few chickens on their land. Is he satisfied that they are receiving timely and accurate information about what to do? What proportion of the total number of UK poultry owners does he believe is on the Great Britain poultry register? What stocks of H5N1 vaccination for humans do the Government currently possess? Health Ministers say that those may be used to vaccinate front-line health workers. What plans does he have to make the vaccine available to poultry workers, who may be even more in the front line? Is the Secretary of State
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satisfied that the arrangements for removing the culled animals and transporting them for disposal and rendering are sufficiently biosecure?

We all hope that the market for poultry products will not be affected by these events, but in the case of adverse market impacts, will the Secretary of State draw down the UK’s entitlement to EU support funding—something of great importance to an already beleaguered industry? What measures is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that UK poultry exports will not be adversely affected? I have already seen a report that Japan has imposed a temporary ban on imports of UK poultry products.

Thus far, we support the Government and their agencies, the police and local authorities who are working so hard to tackle this outbreak. We extend our sympathy to poultry workers, who naturally voice concerns about their jobs and their welfare. Above all, we need an answer to the question: how exactly did this disease get here?

David Miliband: I very much appreciate the tone of the hon. Member’s remarks. His questions are wholly legitimate, and I shall try to go through them carefully.

The question of reassurance for the public is obviously an important one. We are conscious that messages have to be clear, and we have been trying to work with the retail industry and the poultry sector to give clear and consistent messages. Fortunately, we live in an age when information is widely available through the internet and other sources. I fully endorse the hon. Gentleman’s thanks to the long list of public servants who have been involved at all levels, and to people in private industry who have worked very hard with us in this effort.

One of the hon. Gentleman’s main points was about the causes of the outbreak, and he is absolutely right to say that getting to the root of it is a high priority. That is one reason why we have not dismissed any suggestions; we are pursuing all possible avenues of inquiry. It remains most likely that at the root of the problem there is a link with the wild bird population, but that does not mean that we should not pursue other avenues in a serious way, with the greatest of speed, and we are doing so. I will be happy to keep the hon. Gentleman and the House informed as the investigations by officials continue.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether “quickly” meant the following day. It certainly did not; as I said in my statement, as soon as the state veterinary service was informed of the difficulties, restrictions were immediately imposed, and the contingency plan went into action. He asked about the poultry register, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to tell the House, and hopefully through the House people more widely, that although there is a requirement on all those who own more than 50 poultry birds to register on the GB poultry register, it is open to all those with a smaller number of poultry birds to do so. If they do, they can avail themselves of the information that is quickly sent to all those on the register, and that would certainly be excellent. I do not have the figure that the hon. Gentleman asked for on the percentage of poultry owners who are registered, because, almost by definition, if they are not registered, we do not know whether they are there. We are confident
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that at least 95 per cent. of British poultry is on the register. However, I understand his point, and from my point of view, the more people who register the better.

I think that the hon. Gentleman may have missed something in my statement; I thought that I had made it absolutely clear that the Tamiflu vaccine was already available for poultry workers. We believe that that is the right approach, when combined with the wearing of protective clothing, which all our experts say is the most important measure, and the first line of defence. I am pleased to say that we are working with the trade unions on that, too. On compensation, I hope that he will understand when I say that our first priority has been to clamp down on the current outbreak, but of course we are keeping all options open in respect of future compensation arrangements.

On exports, the most important thing that we can do is act in accordance with our plan, which is widely recognised as being of a very high standard. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Japanese example, which I have heard about. I think that I am right in saying that the industry’s export value is about £375 million to £377 million a year. The EU content of that is about £280 million to £290 million a year, so our first priority has been to ensure a secure line with the European Commission, and that has been done. Obviously we are working with those in Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts around the world to ensure that the message goes out clearly that we have very high standards, that we take the issue extremely seriously, and that we will stamp out the problem.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare for keeping us informed over the weekend; it was greatly appreciated. I join others in thanking the local councils, Suffolk police and the local primary care trust for its work in respect of the emergency planning team over the weekend.

We know that bird deaths are not uncommon in rearing houses, and it would therefore be impractical immediately to raise a full-scale alert at every bird death, but as we now have this deadly virus in our country—that is, it has appeared here—does the Secretary of State think that we need to establish a threshold, a point at which local vets are immediately required to alert his Department, even if they are not sure that the problem is the virus? Finally, if there are no further outbreaks, within what time scale does my right hon. Friend envisage that the restriction zone, the surveillance zone and the buffer zones will no longer be needed?

David Miliband: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making his points. It might help the whole House if I gave the figures for the deaths in the shed in question on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which were given to me in percentage terms just before I came to the House. On Tuesday, the figure was 1 per cent., on Wednesday 3.6 per cent., and on Thursday 16 per cent. It was the leap to 16 per cent. that led the local vet, quite professionally and properly, to alert the state veterinary service. I am nervous of saying that there should be one figure below which everything is fine, and above which we would trigger full battle plans. In this case, the evidence presented
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to me shows that local officials and vets have acted in an extremely professional way, and that the leap from 3.6 per cent. to 16 per cent. rightly triggered concern.

My hon. Friend asked about the length of time beyond which we would be able to lift the restrictions. The requirement is 30 days and we will be seeking to achieve that as soon as possible.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): My thanks to the Secretary of State for keeping us informed and for an early sight of the statement. A number of allegations have been made that factory farming may have been a contributory cause, based on research in Canada and on some of the findings of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Will he comment on that?

Turning to the Government’s immediate reaction, will the Secretary of State explain a little more clearly what appears to have been a delay? Reporting by private vets has been mentioned. Has the Department issued guidance that sets out to private vets an indication of when they can be expected to report to the state veterinary service? According to the Minister of State, tests were not performed on Thursday evening. Why? Why did we have to wait until Saturday for the test results, given that presumably every hour is crucial when facing such a highly pathogenic outbreak?

Looking beyond the immediate response, will the Secretary of State comment on compensation for farmers and confirm that it will be forthcoming in this case under schedule 3 of the Animal Health Act 1981? I note that David Nabarro, head of the UN department co-ordinating the global efforts against bird flu, has warned us to expect more outbreaks in the coming months. What research have the Government undertaken into bird vaccines after the Cellardyke swan case, after which Sir David King, chief scientific officer to the Government said,

Is that still the Government’s judgment?

Is it not perverse that while the Department’s own website argues that this year’s emergency budget cuts were in part caused by additional bird flu spending, the impact of the cuts will fall in part on the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which has lost £2.4 million in this financial year, and the SVS, which has lost £3 million? Is that not a short-sighted cut that the Secretary of State should now regret?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman asked about factory farming—his words, not mine. We have no evidence that the occurrence was linked to that.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions about delay without realising or pinpointing what delays he was talking about. I thought my statement made it absolutely clear that as soon as the SVS had been notified, the process set out in the contingency plan— it is available to him, to other hon. Members and to members of the public—was set in motion. By 21.00 hours on Friday, preliminary test results revealed that it was the H5 avian flu. It is rather unfair of the hon. Gentleman—not to me, but to the officials who have been working at the Weighbridge laboratory—to suggest that they were somehow dilatory or not on the
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case. They worked very hard with the samples delivered to them. By Friday morning, there was a further development. By Friday afternoon, we had confirmation of the Asian link. On reflection the hon. Gentleman might want to recognise the hard work of these public officials, rather than attacking them on the basis of limited information, or at least limited judgment.

On compensation, it arises most obviously for the Bernard Matthews company in the current case. As the hon. Gentleman will know, compensation is available in the case of slaughter of healthy birds. In this case, that is a large majority of them and we are discussing that with the company. I am confident that we will come to an agreement, although both the company and the Department have focused on stamping out the disease as the top priority. It remains the case that our guidance about vaccines has not changed. In respect of the alleged cuts to the state veterinary service, the hon. Gentleman is simply wrong.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend makes the point that the most likely explanation for the cause of the outbreak is wild fowl. Is it not just as possible and just as likely that purchasing turkey chicks from Hungary might be an important factor? Has he investigated that to see whether it happens with British industries?

David Miliband: There may have been one aspect of the question from the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that I did not answer, and it is linked—the so-called Hungarian connection. The chicks all came from within this country, so there is no Hungarian connection of that sort. The factory involved in the Hungarian outbreak was not a Bernard Matthews factory.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that there is considerable admiration in Suffolk for the work of his Department, for Lee Howells and Suffolk county council’s emergency department, and for Wendy Mawer and what has happened with Waveney district council, contrary to the comments from the Liberal Democrats, which are clearly unsuitable, given the hard work that has been done overnight by those people? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the outbreak has been a tremendous problem for a large number of poultry keepers? Can he assure the House that he will be no less generous in his support than the French Government were in a similar circumstance, and that he will also look at the considerable extra costs that will be borne by Suffolk county council and the police, who have behaved extremely well and who are already carrying significant extra costs because of the sad circumstances earlier in the year? Lastly, does he agree that one of the reasons why we can expect many of our exports to continue is the sensible arrangements in the European Union, where our membership is extremely important in this matter?


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