asked Her Majesty's Government:
Whether, in the light of advice from experts on the risk of avian influenza being brought into the United Kingdom through the wild bird trade and bird fairs, they will seek a permanent ban on this trade during the United Kingdom presidency of the European Union.
My Lords, trade in all live birds from countries with highly pathogenic avian influenza is already banned. A permanent ban on the importation of wild birds from countries not affected with the disease is not scientifically justified, as the birds are imported under European Community rules that require them to be held in quarantine and tested for the virus.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply but it is truly worrying. Can he confirm that we are still importing birds from many parts of the world, despite the fact that this flu virus is travelling very fast; and can he further confirm that pet birds and birds for zoos from those parts of the world not covered by the ban do not even have to be quarantined at all; and that, of those that are quarantined, only a small selection are chosen to be tested for avian flu, even though the birds may be carrying that flu and showing no signs? These birds can then go off to pet fairs in the rest of Britain. Does he not think the Government had better seize the opportunity of the UK presidency to introduce a proper EU-wide ban, in the face of a serious threat?
My Lords, there is a negligible risk from legal trade, due to the EU controls in place. The wild birds allowed in under those controls come from registered holdings in the country of origin, where they are inspected by official vets, and on arrival here are subject to 30 days' quarantine with compulsory testing for both avian influenza and Newcastle disease. These controls ensure that any infected birds are detected before release.
The noble Baroness referred to pet birds. When these birds are brought in, they are effectively under house arrest. They are quarantined in their owner's home for a period of time, when there is every chance that there will be an inspection of those birds—though not every one of them. A lot of work has been done on this, and we believe that the present bird importation controls are appropriate.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the American scientists who have recently reconstructed the virus responsible for the pandemic of Spanish flu that killed millions of people across the world after the First World War have found that that virus shares certain characteristic structural components with this bird flu virus now isolated in the Far East? In the light of this disturbing information, what progress are the Government making in producing and stockpiling relevant vaccine to protect the population?
My Lords, I am aware of the American report, and it is a concern. The noble Lord will know that the Government have taken the issue of the emergence of the H5N1 virus strain from Asia very seriously, and relevant departments are working well together. The House will understand, however, that judgments are made consistent with the risk; in other words, that our response to this serious problem is proportionate. There should be no complacency on the one hand but, frankly, there should be no scaremongering on the other, and this House and Parliament in general have a duty in that regard.
The noble Lord asked about doses of antiviral. I understand that 14.6 million doses of antiviral will be ready by December 2006. That is not to say that many are not in existence now, and the Department of Health is working extremely hard on that.
My Lords, the noble Baroness's Question rightly raises important issues about the postern door but the main gate is wide open. Is the Minister satisfied that the steps he has taken to monitor the arrival of migratory birds over the coming months will enable him to identify sufficiently rapidly whether the virus has arrived in this country?
My Lords, I am satisfied that the requirements that we have put in place in relation to migratory birds are appropriate and proportionate to the risk that we face, without diminishing for a moment the potential seriousness of the situation. The noble Lord will know that a new surveillance programme has been put into practice this week. It includes the examination of bird carcasses—a practice that has been in place for several years. Now, samples taken from birds caught alive are to be examined, as are samples from legitimately shot birds. We are looking at the situation every day to ensure that our response is appropriate.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of concerns publicly expressed only a couple of days ago by the World Health Organization at the lack of co-operation among scientists, which is hampering efforts to prepare for an avian flu pandemic? Can the noble Lord assure the House that the United Kingdom will use its good offices as president of the European Union to press for greater collaboration between international scientists in order to improve the flu vaccine research that is taking place?
My Lords, I was not aware of the matter raised by the noble Baroness but, because she has raised it and because of the manner in which she has raised it, I will certainly take the issue back and write to her with the department's answer.
My Lords, believe me, I have the answer to this question but I think that it would take a little time to go through it. It is on the Defra website and I invite the noble Baroness, if she would be so kind, to find the answer there. Of course, I shall also write to her.