The H5N1 avian flu virus will hit Britain and could remain here for several years, according to bleak predictions from UK and EU government officials.

Poultry producers will have to “learn to live with it”, EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou told an informal meeting of EU health ministers in Brussels.

“We have the measures, we have the legislation, we have the experience to deal with similar problems.

Both us and the European public have to learn to live with this,” Mr Kyprianou said.

In the UK, chief scientific adviser to the government David King echoed Mr Kyprianou’s comments that it was a case of “when” and not “if” the disease would arrive.

Sir David said he expected that once it was endemic it could take more than five years to eradicate, requiring a long-term approach.

One option is vaccination, but Sir David said he was currently against this as a preventative or control measure.

He explained that the vaccine could mask the disease in commercial flocks.

But his remarks have fuelled the vaccination debate prompting a counter-argument by organic promotion body the Soil Association.

Association director Patrick Holden said he understood concerns over the possible masking of the virus by vaccination.

But he said he still believed that there was a role for ring vaccination during an outbreak.

In a letter sent to the Prime Minister earlier this week, Mr Holden expressed his ongoing concerns about the government’s lack of action in building up a bank of vaccine for birds.

He posed three main questions: Does the government support ring-vaccination; if so, are their sufficient vaccine stocks; and if not, will DEFRA order sufficient stocks in case it has recourse to ring vaccination.

The latest letter follows up one sent four months ago calling for government support for ring vaccination.

richard.allison@rbi.co.uk