Experts warn DEFRA to be prepared for avian flu

DEFRA has been urged to bring forward its bird flu contingency planning exercise to ensure the UK is fully prepared for an outbreak of the disease during the impending spring migration.

Experts tracking the disease believe the risk of spread to the UK is highest during the migratory period.

Writing to DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett, Tory shadow minister for agriculture Jim Paice expressed his astonishment that a government exercise to review contingency plans for a national outbreak was not set to take place until after the birds had arrived.

Exercise “Hawthorn” will begin on 5 April, with the subsequent report not published until the summer.

Mr Paice urged: “Any simulation to test the UK’s preparedness for an outbreak must take place immediately.”

John Widdowson, vice-chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, agreed that it should be carried out earlier, but not at the expense of it being carried out properly.

He added that there was confusion over the risks of migrating birds.

“There is a lot of conflicting evidence on whether migrating birds are responsible for the virus spread. DEFRA’s ongoing surveillance of wild birds has so far found no H5N1 and only one bird had the low pathogenic subtype.”

But in the same week, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced that France would hold its national bird flu readiness exercise in March.

A regional exercise would take place in February.

French authorities have also taken action to extend the area covered by a ban on outdoor poultry to two-thirds of the country.

This is in addition to the existing ban on feeding poultry outside and these measures will run until the end of May.