Britain’s defences against avian flu are being put to the test as DEFRA rolls out a real time simulation of an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of the disease.

Called “Exercise Hawthorn”, the desk-top operation is designed to test communications between various government departments and regional disease control centres that would be used in the event of a real outbreak.

Organisations like the Meat Hygiene Service, the Food Standards Agency and the State Veterinary Service are also involved.

“The aim is to review, check and update the government’s contingency plans and thereby establish the current readiness for such an outbreak whilst identifying improvements,” said a DEFRA statement.

The theoretical exercise is based on day three of a confirmed outbreak of H5N1 on a Norfolk free-range poultry unit.

Two other “highly suspect” cases had been reported on day two, with preliminary results expected imminently.

During the exercise, participants are expected to perform the tasks that they would have to do if it was a real outbreak.

But there is no involvement at farm level, to test the implementation of isolation zones and surveillance zones.

Chief poultry advisor at the NFU, Maria Ball, said that Exercise Hawthorn is a crucial part of the contingency planning.

It includes so-called “bird table meetings”, as used in last year’s outbreak of Newcastle disease, to bring key people together several times a day.

“These meetings are critical,” she said. “They determine what the situation is around an infected holding, calling in data-bases and establishing what needs to be done in terms of movement restrictions.”

The lack of farmer involvement at this stage of the planning was not a great concern, she added, though it may be necessary to test on-the-ground responses at a later date.