Avian Flu

– in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 17 November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Spokespersons In the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 5:00, 17 November 2005

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether adequate safeguards are in place to deal with a potential outbreak of avian flu.

My Lords, my intention in seeking this debate was to put an end to the scare-mongering that has been going on in the press by eliciting the facts; to obtain an accurate guide of where we are now; to examine what happened hitherto to learn from the mistakes that have been made; and to point the way forward. We much regret the announcement of two further deaths in China.

I am very grateful to all noble Lords who will speak in this short debate today. I shall listen with interest to their contributions and I know that they will cover different aspects of the work within Defra and the Department of Health. I am sure that our debate will underline the need for those two departments to work closely together.

On 26 October, the Government made a Statement which was repeated in this House. The virus H5N1 had been identified in a quarantine centre. We now know that the original source was not a parrot, as was originally claimed, nor a second parrot, but one or more of the other birds from which samples were examined simultaneously. The Statement also referred to the deaths of some birds before 16 October. On 22 October, an investigation into the sequence of events leading to the deaths was begun. Of those dead birds, 32 were in the freezer awaiting collection by a veterinary inspector. They had been there for at least a week.

The Statement that we heard that day from the Minister covered several issues, which I shall slightly abbreviate. The quarantine centre was holding consignments of exotic birds from both Taiwan and Suriname. Since July, there had been increasing reports of outbreaks of avian flu—influenza—in wild birds. We also recognise that the contingency plan for avian flu was laid before Parliament this July. Following the Statement, the EU banned the import of live birds until 30 November. I understand that that has now been extended to 31 January, which is welcome. Methods of increasing vigilance against illegal imports were now being examined. Most bird fairs, markets and shows were banned and a register of all commercial poultry producers would be introduced.

They were fine words and, had the problem not worsened since July, I may have been able to accept that there was no urgency. In fact, it was four months from that July until we had the Statement. It might be said that Defra dithered. I am sure that the Minister would not agree. So I must ask him why it was that four months passed before basic precautionary strategies were in place. Why was a ban on live imports not put in place straight away? Why was not great emphasis put on stopping illegal imports? Why was not a register of commercial flocks put in place at that stage? I understand that, as the Minister told me on that day, there is no such register. Why wait four months when the outbreak was continuing to spread?

Today gives the Minister a chance to update us on the measures taken and to reassure us that there has been a thorough investigation into that quarantine centre and into the regulation and control of quarantine. I am especially concerned that all quarantine centres will by now have been inspected by a competent person; that surveillance at Heathrow and any other authorised entry point will have been strengthened; and that anyone caught smuggling live birds into this country will be arrested, charged and prosecuted and that the officials at the country of origin have been informed and requested to discourage further such traffic.

On 14 November, I put a Written Question to the noble Lord asking how many illegally imported exotic birds had been seized each year from 2002–05. In 2004, 2,922 birds were seized. How many arrests have been made? How many successful prosecutions have taken place? What is the maximum fine that can be given?

I should like to share some figures elicited on 7 November from Ben Bradshaw by my honourable friend Jim Paice. The EU-wide computer system—TRACES—reported imports in 2004 of 67,480 captive birds, 98 per cent of which—66,586—came into the United Kingdom. In 2005, to date, we have imported more than one hundred thousand birds, which are legal imports counted by the system. What is going on? Who is importing those birds? From whence do they come? Are all of those birds quarantined? Are the premises safe? More importantly, are records kept of their final destination?

The vaccination of birds likely to suffer from avian flu was raised in another place after the Statement was made. The Secretary of State made the point that no authorised vaccine was available. Is any vaccine for birds available? If so, can it be authorised quickly? The Secretary of State stated:

"If a suitable vaccine were used, birds would have to be vaccinated twice with a minimum three-week separation period. Poultry would be dead then anyway, because there is a seven-week life span."—[Hansard, Commons, 26/10/05; col. 313.]

I did not follow that. To what was she referring? Perhaps the Minister will tell me further. If, within Europe, there is no vaccine for birds, why has China announced a massive vaccination programme? Can the Minister tell us what they will use and where they have obtained their supplies? It may be that China has cornered the market and that Defra is unable to source vaccines because we acted so late.

The statutory instrument introducing the emergency regulations came into effect on 28 October. Under it the Secretary of State may declare flu prevention zones, which may cover all or any stated part of the country. But there is no basic rule, such as "within five kilometres of a reported suspect". How will those zones be communicated? For those of us involved with the foot and mouth outbreak, it was widely known that if a case was confirmed on farm X, all the animals up to three kilometres away would be culled. Should there be something similar for avian flu?

The roles of vets in tackling an outbreak will be critical. The BVA has been closely involved. Its president, Bob McCracken, has given radio interviews stressing that the threat so far is to birds. There is, however, a danger that everyone who works with infected creatures might be at risk. What measures are in place, in preparation and under investigation to protect people who work within the poultry system?

On 17 October, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, who is no longer in his seat, repeated a Statement on avian flu. I know that other noble Lords will speak further on the health issue. But I want to highlight two or three points that he raised. Has a list of key workers been identified for the allocation of any vaccine for humans that is available? When the outbreak was first discovered, what information was sent to primary care units? Have the Government ordered basic supplies, such as gloves, needles and face masks? I understand that France already has 600 million. There are many questions which we could press. Today, we hope that the Minister will be able answer some of them. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have put their names down to speak.

Photo of Lord Stratford Lord Stratford Labour 5:10, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for facilitating this debate. I cannot underline and emphasise enough the importance of the point she made at the beginning of her remarks; that is, the need to do something about the exaggeration and the hysteria that surrounds the current outbreak of avian flu. Much of the blame lies with the absurd stories we have been regaled with in the media, particularly in the tabloid press. One headline stated: "750,000 People in the United Kingdom Likely to Die". I think that was in the Daily Express. In "my soaraway Sun" there was a picture of a flock of geese with the caption, "Ducks of Death". That sort of reporting is irresponsible—it is absurd—and needs to be addressed.

Of course one has to be aware of the potential dangers, but it is essential to keep the whole thing in proportion. I understand that there are at least 144 strains of avian influenza, and most of the viruses in the wild bird population are benign. Here we are talking about the highly pathogenic flu virus H5N1 which can cause high mortality in domestic poultry flocks, but it is rare in wild birds. Indeed, it appears that H5N1 had never previously been recorded in wild birds before the recent outbreaks in south-east Asia, Russia and the countries bordering the Black Sea. The chances are that the infection originated in domestic poultry and was then transmitted to wild birds.

What upsets me most about this—I have to try to control myself when I get involved in debates of this sort—is that, along with most ecological disasters, the blame lies essentially with the practices of human beings. We ought to have learnt the lessons by now. If we play dice with nature, there will be a price to pay, and the price is likely to be high. In the case of avian flu the cause has been clearly attributed to the methods of husbandry practised in south-east Asia where dense populations of domestic flocks are allowed to intermix with wild birds, especially water birds.

The noble Baroness referred to yet another reported death, but to put the danger to human beings in context we have to remember that since 2003 only 60 deaths worldwide have been caused by avian flu. It is pretty tough if you were one of the people who happened to die as a result of avian flu, but when more than 60 people a week are killed in road accidents in this country, we must realise that the whole thing is getting out of proportion. To go from 60 deaths around the world since 2003 to 750,000 deaths in one country, as suggested in the Daily Express, is a statistical leap of quantum proportions. It really is about time that the headline writers on our newspapers behaved more responsibly.

A further point of concern is the talk of carrying out culls of wild birds. Not only would that be unacceptable and incredibly difficult to implement, but it would also be unlikely to stop the potential spread of the disease. I believe that the danger to human beings is being exaggerated, but the threat to wild birds is real and genuine. It is estimated that between 5 and 10 per cent of the world population of wild bar-headed geese died in the recent outbreak in China. The real sufferers in the current avian flu scare, notwithstanding the people who regrettably and tragically have died, are domestic poultry. The last outbreak of avian flu in Belgium in 2003 resulted in the destruction of 30 million poultry, while there was one human fatality. In the current outbreak many millions of healthy domestic animals are being slaughtered, often in the most appalling circumstances. We have seen pictures of birds being burnt while they are clearly still alive. That is obscene and unacceptable.

I do not understand what it is about human beings that we are so destructive of animal life. When wild animals affect domestic animals it is, "Let's kill the wild animals". When domestic animals affect human beings then it is, "Let's kill the domestic animals". We never seem ready to blame ourselves for the kinds of scenarios that we can see unfolding in front of us. The carnage is our responsibility and the cause of the problem lies essentially with us. I keep thinking about the BSE crisis, which was entirely man made. If you are going to feed herbivores reprocessed animal protein, how on earth can anyone expect that there will not be a price to pay at some later stage? There was, and millions of healthy animals were destroyed. I said at the time—I have said this in the other place on many occasions—that the programme of destruction owed more to voodoo than it did to science.

My noble friend the Minister was a little put out by a point I made in a Question recently when I referred to the Daleks in his department. It was certainly true of the old MAFF. "Exterminate them" seems to be their answer to almost everything, whether it is bovine TB, BSE or, potentially now, avian flu. All I can say is, "Thank God his officials do not run the National Health Service". Clearly the answer to the current outbreak lies in improved bio security, primarily in the poultry industry.

The noble Baroness also referred to the import of wild birds. I believe that the current temporary ban on the import of wild birds should be made permanent. I do not see any reason why we should allow this trade to go on. It is unnecessary, abhorrent and entirely destructive. When you look at the statistics you realise how appalling they are. The European Union is the largest importer of wild caught birds in the world, responsible for 93 per cent of imports of threatened and endangered species. This equates to more than 2.5 million birds imported into the EU between 2000 and 2003. When one adds all the illegal birds—which come in, I might add, under the cover of the legal trade—one realises how venal and destructive of wildlife this trade is.

It will not come as any great surprise to my friends in the other place, and perhaps to my friends here, that I care more for animals than I do for people. I make that confession mainly because I have found in my experience that people as a species are fairly disgusting. That is something that I will have to live with. No doubt Members will get used to it in the years to come.

I am willing to bet my pension—which, in view of the previous debate, is probably a good bet to place—that there will not be a human pandemic arising from the current outbreak of avian flu. That is my prediction and that is the bet that I am prepared to make. But, of course, I have the comfort that, were I to be wrong on this occasion, I will not be around to surrender my pension.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench 5:18, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for asking whether we are prepared for an outbreak of avian flu. The World Health Organisation has stated that the avian flu virus H5N1,

"poses a continuing and potentially pandemic threat".

Our Chief Medical Officer has stated,

"most experts believe that it is not a question of whether there will be another severe influenza pandemic, but when".

Everyone must hope that this will not happen, but we must not become complacent. We should all be on the alert.

I must declare an interest. I have chickens, peacocks and doves at our house. On the estate there are masses of pheasants, grouse, ducks, geese and wild birds of all descriptions—except sparrows, which have disappeared. I have a pony stud and a small riding centre.

The symptoms of avian influenza include fever, sore throat and cough. The severe cases progress to pneumonia, which is fatal in some individuals. The symptoms are similar to other viral infections and the diagnosis can be confirmed only by laboratory identification of the virus. The avian virus is highly contagious and spreads rapidly among poultry flocks. When we had such a devastating time with foot and mouth disease and we now have a threat of avian flu, why have the Government downgraded the government veterinary investigation centres? Surely at the moment they should be given top priority. I hope that the Minister will give your Lordships an answer today on this matter but, if not, I hope that there will be an explanation as soon as possible.

Rigorous disinfection of poultry farms is necessary. Recently I asked a farm supplier which disinfectant was best for poultry houses, but my secretary was given the answer that he did not know. I asked a Question for Written Answer to make the need for such disinfectants more widely known, but the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred me to Defra's website, where I found a mass of names—about 100 of them. Another agricultural merchant recommended to me a disinfectant called Perax (2), but I have read that the virus is killed by heat and by disinfectants such as formalin and iodine compounds. Perhaps they are all as good as each other.

The virus can survive at cool temperatures in contaminated manure for at least three months. In water, the virus can survive for up to four days at 22 degrees centigrade. Those figures demonstrate that, without the implementation of strict hygiene measures, the virus may remain as a potential source of infection for months. With regard to the highly pathogenic form of the disease, studies have shown that a single gram of contaminated manure can contain enough virus to infect 1 million birds.

Should the virus arrive, do the Government recommend vaccination of poultry? I think that it would be wise if basic guidelines went out to people working at ground level, such as gamekeepers, who might find dead birds. They need to be told to wear protective gloves and to double-bag the birds if they take them for examination; or would a Defra technician come and collect them? At what temperature should protective clothing be washed, and should special equipment be used? Is the Minister satisfied that collaboration between the public health and agricultural sectors, the veterinary services and the general public is close enough? The general public need to know.

An added concern was when I heard that avian influenza could spread to horses. The influenza A virus infects many animals, including pigs, whales, seals, birds, horses and humans, but vets have told me that they believe that the current outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza poses a risk to the horse population in countries where the disease is present. Difficulties of control would arise in creating a vaccine and incorporating it into vaccines with other strains. Also, 70 per cent of the horse population would have to be vaccinated.

What is the Minister's response to the Times article on 31 October headed "'Mad Cow' rules will halt advance of flu treatment"? Scientists believe that antibodies taken from the blood of recovered flu patients could be used to treat others who develop the disease, providing a third line of defence against a pandemic after vaccines and antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu. However, the technique could not be used in the UK because of a ban on British blood products in medical therapies introduced seven years ago due to the risk of spreading variant CJD. Surely, as the pharmaceutical industry is world wide, we will have to buy immunoglobulins from countries where there is no risk, should they be needed.

The H5N1 virus is not the only form of flu which might attack us. Have we enough intensive care and emergency beds, should an epidemic or pandemic emerge? If there are not enough beds for risk people at risk, such as those who have lung problems, will the Government make new money available for the PCTs, which are stretched, and for hospitals, which have already had to cut the number of beds? We should be prepared, and I hope the Minister will answer some of our questions.

Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative 5:25, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Byford for putting down this Unstarred Question. In particular, I hope it permits a clarification of the issue of avian flu. As has been said, so much has appeared in the press that it tends to confuse rather than clarify.

I wish to deal with four areas of risk: the risk to the national poultry flock in the United Kingdom; operator risks; consumer risks; and the risk, eventually, of pandemic flu. With respect to our national poultry flock, avian flu is endemic in, and out of control in, the Far East, particularly in China, and has been so for the past 10 years. Despite culling and controls, open water contaminated with bird droppings and sewage, which is fed to birds and used for humans too, means that it is no wonder that endemic avian flu is rampant in that part of the world.

What must be done to keep avian flu out of the United Kingdom? First, our surveillance must be vigilant and impeccable. I have often said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Our quarantine system must not be found wanting, as was the case with the recent episode of samples being mixed up and false reports made about imported parrots and finches.

The possible pathways leading to introduction include migratory birds, the legal and illegal trade in birds brought into the country and bird fairs and shows. What has been done to prepare the country for a ban on captive bird imports, as has been mentioned, increased wild bird surveillance and restrictions on fairs, shows and other gatherings? How secure are the regulations for controlling these?

Should avian flu gain entrance to this country, prompt action will be necessary. Infected premises will have to be isolated, all birds in those premises will have to be slaughtered, and this will have to be followed by vaccination. Whatever is done, the United Kingdom must act within the European directive regulations which are the basis of our national regulations. I understand that the present EU legislation is out of date and that a new directive is well ahead and much better than the old one. However, there is still work to be done on it, with discussions taking place in the European Union and with Defra, the department dealing with it here. When will these new directives be ready? How will they improve the possible actions to be taken in the United Kingdom?

On the risk to operators, we know that human infection with the H5N1 virus in endemic countries such as China is associated with very close contact with faeces, blood, entrails and carcases. Should there be a need to cull birds if the virus enters this country, a large number of domestic poultry may well have to be slaughtered.What plans are there to safeguard the health and welfare of the personnel concerned?

With respect to the risk to the consumer via the food chain, provided that the food is cooked and eggs are boiled adequately, there is little danger. However, as has been mentioned in this debate, it is possible to transmit the avian flu virus to mammals. For example, zoo tigers have been fed infected chicken meat and have died as a result. However, there is no risk to humans provided that the food is adequately cooked.

On the human health issue and the infection of humans with the avian flu virus H5N1, human infection is rare. Considering the millions of birds that have been infected and have died in the Far East—something in the order of 700 million—only a handful of human cases—160—have become clinically ill and a proportion of those—60 or so—have died. When one considers the numbers, very close contact indeed is necessary between infected birds and humans. However, the danger lies in the H5N1 virus acquiring highly infectious properties through either re-assortment or modification of its genome and/or re-assortment along with the human influenza virus. Hence, it is important to do all that we can to control avian flu at its origin. It is important to nip outbreaks in the bud, as early as possible. That may not be possible in Asia, because of the present nature of poultry keeping and the difficulty in getting to remote parts of that continent, but in Europe it may well be a different matter. What is being done in Europe?

The organisation that could and should be in the lead is the FAO—the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations in Rome. However, it is poorly funded and more funding is necessary not only for the Far East, but for countries in Eastern Europe where the animal health control infrastructure needs strengthening. I hope that the Government will give assistance to the FAO not only for that purpose, but to strengthen the animal health efforts in these eastern countries.

Photo of The Bishop of Chelmsford The Bishop of Chelmsford Bishop 5:33, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I am similarly grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity today to talk about these issues. In July this year, a group of my senior team in the diocese spent four days in Romania. We were the guests of the Orthodox Church in the Diocese of Iash and as part of our visit we spent a day in the rural communities seeing something of the ministry of the Orthodox Church. Once you are out of the major towns in Romania, you become very conscious of how underdeveloped are parts of eastern Europe. Farming is by horse and cart without exception and with heavy use of human labour. Everywhere you go, down unmade streets in the villages, people have their own means of producing food. Across the road, there are flocks of ducks everywhere you go. It reminded me of China where the high dependency by the rural poor on chickens and ducks is manifest wherever you go.

It is all very well and no doubt right and proper for the EC to start talking about moving poultry indoors. In Romania, only the winter cold will achieve that. There is not a ghost of a chance of the sort of controls that we think of over here being applied there. Poor rural communities are already exposed to the problems of disease, and the problems of managing in the face of that threat are located not only in south-east Asia but on our doorsteps in Europe.

No one is helped by panic responses, and our own farming community needs protection from public anxiety. I very much support the remarks recently made about the media. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will take on board the lessons of the foot and mouth crisis in 2001; public anxiety led by the media can lead to the wrong responses and, in this case, to a mass cull of birds that is neither necessary nor effective. The steps already being taken and any proposed for the future will work much better if they are rooted in a process of mutual trust and consensus, and we prepare for that by bringing the parties together and agreeing how we are to handle these matters.

When we consider the possibility of the disease mutating and being spread from person to person, leading to another major flu pandemic, we similarly need to avoid panic and be properly prepared. If we are to be properly prepared, it is vital that there is transparency from the start and that people are told the truth. I suspect that the truth is that while we cannot know how the disease will develop, whether it will mutate and in what way, we need to be prepared for a pandemic. Every person and household will need to know in advance what they can do to minimise the impact should such a pandemic take hold on our world. What preparatory material are the Government preparing for the households of our country so that they may be properly prepared?

We must not pretend that any of this will be easy. I understand that the Government's own estimate is that, if we have a pandemic, 50,000 people are likely to die as a result. That, I assume, is on the assumption that the vaccination is effective and widespread. When you start to think of the implications, you can begin to see the challenge—from the impact on residential homes for the elderly through to the loss of the voluntary commitment to community life and community building, which is made predominantly in our society by those over the age of 60 and in retirement. Who will deliver meals-on-wheels and do the lunch club, or the structured visiting of the sick and isolated? The people on the receiving end are not only the elderly themselves; often the people offering the services are elderly.

Will the funeral services be able to cope? Standing here as a Bishop, I want to know whether the clergy and religious leaders who have to bear the brunt of this ministry and the ministry of comfort to those who have lost loved ones will be acknowledged and supported. The excellent report prepared by the NHS somehow draws to a halt in front of that issue. On page 32, it refers to the impact on such services as,

"death registration and funeral directors will have an increased work load".

I believe that some of my clergy will have an increased work load—and I know that we have been in correspondence about the importance of religious leaders and local clergy being included in the preparations. After a glance at the report, I find that it does not make enough mention of voluntary organisations in our community; we need to do more on that.

The Minister will know of our concerns in these areas. I know that my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell has written to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and I am sure that he will get a positive response.

I know from my time in Sheffield, when we suffered the Hillsborough football disaster, the stress on clergy seeking to offer help and support to people at a time of great community stress. The clergy of Sheffield, without being asked to do so, rallied to the football ground and were often the first there to bring help alongside the professionals who sought to bring professional help. In the case of avian flu, that will be exhausting—and that is on the assumption that the clergy do not themselves contract the disease. What happens if two or three of my clergy go down with the disease at one and the same time as the demand on funeral services goes up? These are important issues that need to be thought through.

The medical and scientific problem is the presenting problem, but the social and human consequences are the real issue here, as it is with our farmers, and those who raise chickens and produce our eggs and local produce. We have to deal with the science of the disease, but it is how we deal with the effects on people that is the most important question. I am sure we are all agreed that panic will lead to the wrong responses. Even in the face of popular anxiety, those of us who are leaders in the community need to hold our nerve and be well prepared.

These events remind us once again that it is a myth that we are in control of our destiny. The test of our faith and our values lies not in control, but in the quality of our response. Avian flu will test that once again.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench 5:40, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I join other noble Lords to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for her opening remarks in this important debate, and for her thoroughly researched and learned opening speech, which was helpful in starting us off. I must declare an interest of sorts because I am on the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is currently looking at the issue of avian flu. Our report will be out before Christmas. I hope that none of my remarks will be seen in any way to pre-empt that report, but that they resonate with the report that we will eventually produce.

I will focus my remarks principally on thinking the unthinkable, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford has already touched on, and on the aspect of research, which has not been adequately covered in any of the contingency plans. The third area is international co-operation and collaboration.

There is a lot of talk about vaccination, antivirals and the focus on prevention, and the focus in agriculture. But when it does happen, panic will certainly set in, and I want to ask the Government specifically how they are going to cope and what plans are in place. For instance, when there is panic about anything we now see our supermarket shelves raided. There is a national shortage of HGV drivers. As our food depots are now so centralised, is there any plan in place to ask the big high-profit supermarket chains—I hesitate to name names because it is like advertising, but I am thinking of Sainsbury, Waitrose, Tesco, Asda and so on—to agree to pool their resources and send out goods from the nearest distribution centre to all branches, so that people get food from their nearest centre, irrespective of the label and the profit in such a situation?

What about power infrastructure? We are reliant on mobile phone networks as a way of communicating. It was evident in the disaster in New Orleans that text messages from people to say they were safe were very important. If the power goes down, however, the mobile network lines go down quickly, so what are the backup systems within those? What has been done to get all the providers to work closely together?

We will be reliant on broadcasting, as we are already. I agree with the comments already made that the media are talking as if there is an inexorable march across Europe of human avian flu, which is not the case at the moment. Monitoring is in place, and it needs to be done carefully. It is not responsible to have exaggerated reporting, as we have at the moment.

I want to turn to research. As well as research into prevention, and talk of vaccines, we need to be doing the research now, immediately, into new vaccine production using things such as cell lines, so vaccine can be produced rapidly rather than with the lag period that there is with traditional vaccine production methods—which are also, ironically, based on eggs, where the vaccine is grown.

When—and I do say when—the pandemic strikes, we need to have everything in place and be ready to go.

There will be no time to draw up research protocols, consult ethics committees, apply for informed consent and so on. If we do not have the protocols already in place to collect all the data that we need, we will miss an incredibly important opportunity in terms of advancing our understanding of the disease. We will also potentially miss an enormous opportunity to save lives. The way that we manage cases in the first days of a pandemic should inform our thinking and knowledge on how we manage cases even a week later. But unless we systematically collect the data, we will not have a clue. We do not know whether Oseltamivir should be given within the first 48 hours or the first six hours of symptoms developing. We do not know whether it should be given in conjunction with something else such as Amantadine to obtain a dual antiviral effect. The only way we shall know that is through having a randomised control trial which is ready to roll out on day one.

We must learn from the past. The MRC studies into childhood leukaemia did just that. Every child with leukaemia was entered into a study. Due to the systematic nature of those trials the mortality rate has been completely turned round from a massive rate to a small number of children now dying.

Some of the regulation surrounding clinical trials will have to be abandoned if the Government do not act until the pandemic has arrived, or a system needs to be put in place to prepare everything beforehand. We will not be able to conduct random trials on a one-by-one basis; we need to consider cluster randomisation. For example, one city will get one system, another city will be managed differently and the data will be compared. We may be able to save thousands of lives in the second and third weeks if we use all the data obtained in the first week.

In conclusion, I refer to the international community. We have already heard about poverty and the dependence of people on subsistence farming. If we expect poor countries to take radical preventive measures which will damage their economies hugely, there must be international support from the wealthier nations so that poor countries are not penalised for responsibly treating and isolating outbreaks. There has to be a system in place through the World Bank to support nations' efforts so that we operate as a global community facing a global threat.

Photo of Lord Chan Lord Chan Crossbench 5:47, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for asking Her Majesty's Government whether adequate safeguards are in place to deal with a potential outbreak of avian flu.

The disease, which has attracted wide public attention through the media, has caused confusion, as other noble Lords have mentioned. There are clearly two separate issues involved in avian flu. First, there is an avian flu epidemic of the H5N1 strain in east and south-east Asia. It has now spread to Russia and Kazakhstan. Infected birds have also been identified here. Secondly, the World Health Organisation has advised countries on the preparations necessary to prepare for an influenza pandemic. The latest UK influenza pandemic contingency plan of October 2005 states that the widespread occurrence and continued spread of a highly pathogenic avian (bird) influenza virus H5N1 in poultry in south-east Asia since 2003 has increased concern that this could provide the seedbed for the emergence of a new human influenza virus with pandemic potential.

I suppose that newspapers would like to expand such reports in portraying what they consider is a likely future scenario. However, at the moment such a scenario is fictional.

There is no doubt that H5N1 is a virulent infection of birds that has spread. As the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, said, avian flu is nothing new. China has had recurrent epidemics over 10 years, but it is only since the resurgence of avian flu with H5N1 in 2003 that the spread has been so rapid and that there have been a small number of human deaths. Today, there are 70 proven cases of deaths from the avian flu virus H5N1, and all of them have occurred in China and the south-east Asian countries of Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Currently, poultry are susceptible to infection by avian flu; we know that from all the experiences of south-east Asian countries. Serious effects would occur on poultry farming if avian flu were to infect our national stock of birds. I look forward to the Minister telling us what will be done and what plans there are for handling such a possibility. I have found at least two documents on pandemic flu, but I have not found any documents on avian flu advice for poultry farmers of the type that have been produced for the NHS.

It has also been said that a vaccine has been manufactured for use in poultry in China. I was in China two weeks ago and yes, it is true that they have manufactured a vaccine. However, the problem is that the vaccine takes three weeks to produce any immunity, and every bird has to be injected individually. It will be an impossibly long and laborious process for the team that is going to vaccinate the birds. So although the vaccine has been manufactured and is being used and publicised, it is unlikely that the current vaccine would have any impact or use for us here.

I will now consider the aspects of human infection and the prospect of an influenza pandemic of H5N1. The Department of Health should be congratulated for making detailed plans, first in March and then again in October using WHO recommendations on how to deal with the pandemic. Using statistics, since the last influenza pandemic was from Hong Kong in 1968, it is about time that another should occur in Europe. That is good planning and it should not cause unnecessary fear and alarm in the public—although unfortunately it has. The President of China on his visit here last week voiced his concern about avian flu and asked for our Government's help on research and co-operation on the public health effects of avian flu. There is no doubt that this is an area where we hope that the Government will join in co-operation.

The report on the first three proven cases of human avian flu from China was in the Times this morning. They were two siblings and another girl from another province in China. All three of them apparently had H5N1 identified in their secretions. Of the two siblings, the girl died but her brother survived although they both had the same illness.

That seems to be good news, if it is true, because it might lead to work on some way of having immunoglobulins or even a vaccine that might be produced for human use.

I come back to our own preparations for pandemic flu. Could there be better information for the public than the large tomes produced? In the SARS epidemic, there was tremendous confusion, particularly among the Chinese community, when people stopped going to Chinese restaurants. They then tuned in to Hong Kong television and saw that everyone was wearing facemasks, so they adopted the same procedure here and started telling people that they should not go to public places, not even churches. I hope that, to avoid such confusion, we would produce a user-friendly information sheet.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 5:56, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for introducing the debate, which has been wide-ranging. I intend to touch on only those issues for which Defra is responsible, because I do not feel that I can really touch on the health issues. I want to cover three areas. The debate is particularly timely because, two days ago, Defra published its epidemiology report on the avian influenza outbreak in quarantine, which raises a number of issues about our biosecurity. A wider issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stratford—why we are importing wild birds at all. I concur with him that we should not be. Indeed, I have tabled an amendment to the NERC Bill to that effect.

I shall go back to the detail of the epidemiology report. I realise that the Minister will not be able to answer all the questions in the time available, but I need to put at least some of them on record. The report raises a large number of questions, about both the principles of importing wild birds and the state of our quarantine system. The mortality in the black-header caique population was notably high—100 per cent—but that was not attributed to any reason. What proportion of legally imported wild birds normally die in quarantine? Are welfare standards really adequate when so many birds can die for no apparent reason? That is a rhetorical question; it clearly is not, because the report goes on to state: "The Mesias", a different species,

"from Taiwan, also exhibited a notable mortality. This was attributed to nutritional/dietary problems".

The birds were apparently not being fed correctly.

I turn to some issues around biosecurity. For example, there were four sentinel chickens, which is a normal way of testing for disease. They were all free of the disease when 53 other birds may have died from it. Does that suggest that the sentinel system is not a reliable safeguard? Another noble Lord raised the habit of tissue pooling in virological testing so that it is impossible to tell from which bird the disease came. That is a serious matter, made more serious by the fact that some birds appear to have been put in the deep freeze afterwards while some were incinerated. On what basis are decisions made on which dead birds will be incinerated and which frozen for testing? If birds simply appear to have died—that is what the epidemiology report says—but only a few have been frozen and the rest incinerated, it will be impossible to go back and have a second look at any of the tissues.

Considering the uncertainty with which the report gives dates for deaths and incinerations, is there any possibility that some of the birds were not burnt at all, but sold before the end of the quarantine period?

I take on board other noble Lords' comments about not raising the temperature on this issue, but this report raises some questions, particularly given that much of the evidence has been burned.

I turn now to issues relating to our poultry farmers. In this country we raise poultry under much higher welfare conditions than in the rest of the world. Our poultry keepers look to the Government to support the type of conditions that they are trying to encourage. Therefore, it is fair that at times such as these the Government should offer poultry keepers very clear guidance—the noble Lord, Lord Chan, asked if there was any guidance available to them. I have received several queries from farmers that are basic and surprising, because, for example, I understand that they have not received any guidance regarding compensation levels during an outbreak. There is a lesson here from the foot and mouth outbreak: farmers will be paid compensation for healthy birds that are slaughtered, but the foot and mouth outbreak demonstrated that indirect losses were great. There is no intention to pay for consequential losses, but losses may arise simply from being in a surveillance area or a restricted zone. There is also the question of organic status regarding birds that are shut indoors for a considerable time.

The Government have stated that they will not finance secondary cleansing. However, if a farmer suffers an outbreak on his farm, his flock will be restricted, with the litter on which it lies, to the farm building. It will stay there for 21 days. The compost that results will then be required to be escorted by a vet to incineration. Is that regulation a sensible use of veterinary time? Of course, biosecurity needs to be ensured, but, surely, we do not need a vet to accompany dead animals and their litter—he should concern himself with the living animals and ensuring that the disease has not spread. The poultry industry is valued at some £1,674 million. We should take seriously our responsibility to support it in every possible way.

Finally, the Minister and the Government have made many statements about the poultry industry in which they always refer to chickens. But elsewhere in their literature they state that waterfowl are particularly vulnerable. Can the Minister say anything about regulations that may specifically refer to ducks and geese?

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Spokespersons In the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, (Also Shadow Minister for Women & Equality- Not In the Shadow Cabinet) 6:04, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Byford on this important and timely debate. The egg industry alone in this country has a turnover of some £570 million and 28 million birds produce within a whisker of 9 billion eggs—and that is only one section of the poultry industry. That industry is a considerable consumer of home-grown cereals at a time when that sector of farming is in considerable difficulty.

Perhaps I may respond to a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chan: I talked to a major Scottish poultry producer who seemed satisfied with the communications that he was receiving from Government, but perhaps he is in better communication with the Government than others. I must declare my own interest in farming, although it is not in poultry.

The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, drew our attention to a new EU directive that is being prepared. I presume that, given our current national position in the European Union, we will have a fairly major part in its drafting. What new measures do the Government feel that should include? I also understand from a statement by the Minister in the other place that the Government have plans to carry out a contingency exercise on avian influenza outbreaks next June. Following the question put by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, will it contain measures for the general population and what is the rationale of choosing that date? Do they expect to be able to include all the provisions of the new EU directive?

It appears that we are susceptible to three possible routes of infection into this country: wild bird migration, wild bird trade and the domestic poultry trade. The noble Lord, Lord Stratford, expressed some of the passion that many of us feel about the dangers that this country faces from the importation of animal diseases. I was interested to see that he is another one who subscribes to the feelings of the late Reginald Heber, who said that we live in a world where all of nature pleases and only man is vile.

We are told that the threat from a major wild bird migration is almost over for the present season. I hope that the Government will not give up on their surveillance of wild bird deaths, as it seems that currently we have very little information on what diseases, if any, the current flow of migrants might be carrying. That might prove to be important if we are required to trace back an outbreak of something rather more dangerous.

On trade and the infections it brings, proper and adequate quarantine provision is obviously essential. I was interested to learn that the Government are currently carrying out a review of quarantine procedures. That topic, which is of much concern to us all, was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton. Was the current review triggered by the latest incident, or is there a provision to update periodically the regulations and, if so, when was that last carried out? It is useful to know that quarantine premises are required to obtain an annual licence and are subject to periodic inspection. In those circumstances, one has to ask whether that is enough.

If we are still correct in believing that wild birds are capable of transmitting dangerous strains of avian influenza to domesticated stock—I gather there is a slight question mark over that at the moment—it would appear that the most likely route of transmission would be from the trade in wild birds, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, referred. Almost by definition these are birds whose health status is not traceable over a very long period. That does not mean that it is totally necessary to try to stop the trade altogether, but it means that it cannot be seen as a business that should be allowed to operate with light-touch regulation.

It seems that certain areas could be considered in the current review of quarantine procedures. I hope it will not be seen as out of place for me to make my own suggestions, because in no way am I an expert in such matters. I was interested to learn that the Essex premises, where the recent incident occurred, were regarded as having been vacant from 9 March until 16 September and that they had been inspected within the past few months. Did that inspection coincide with the premises being empty and was the report of the inspection fully satisfactory? A point that the review might like to consider is that, as with other infectious disease outbreaks, it might be better if periods used for carrying out disinfection were subject to official notification and random inspection.

Secondly, what is the strength of the ruling currently employed which says that all deaths in quarantine should be subject to testing? Is there a time limit by when the tests should be completed? Even if carcases are stored in a refrigerator, by when should they be tested? I am led to believe that even in cold conditions, a virus such as H5N1 deteriorates. Can the negative samples taken from the fridge in Essex be regarded as conclusive?

My third point is that some value is put on the presence of sentinel birds. In these wild bird quarantine centres, would it not be an idea to have more than one species of sentinel bird? As well as having chickens, perhaps there could be ducks.

An area of research that was not touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, is the question of testing for this disease. It is good news that our State Veterinary Service is now working on a test that it hopes will reduce the time for an initial result from three days to three hours. Has the Minister anything to tell the House about how long that research has been going on and whether there is any likelihood of bringing it to a rapid conclusion?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy) 6:10, 17 November 2005

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for giving us the chance to debate this issue in the House tonight. Avian influenza is currently a high-profile topic with the public and it is right that the House should discuss it at this time. Some important and significant points have been made and questions have been asked. I cannot possibly answer them all. It would be impossible to do that within the time available. I shall try to answer what I can and I will write to noble Lords if I cannot answer their questions tonight. By way of example, in the first part of her speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked detailed questions about contingency plans. I would not be doing justice to her speech if I tried to answer her this evening, but I will write to her.

I think it is best if I concentrate on telling the House where the Government believe we are at this time. Indeed, that is what the noble Baroness asked in her question. The first thing is that I remind the House that we do not have an outbreak of high pathogenic avian influenza in this country. The Government continue to monitor closely the risk of such an outbreak in the United Kingdom, and regularly reassess, update and publish their qualitative risk assessment. Indeed, many noble Lords will have seen the most recent QRA, which was made public a week or two ago. The risk of further geographical spread is assessed as high. In that light, the likelihood of the imminent introduction of H5N1 to the UK is assessed as increased, but still low.

We continue to work closely with the European Union. This led to the European Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health agreeing to a European Union-wide ban on the importation of wild birds on a temporary basis. It was extended yesterday to 31 January 2006. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs remain vigilant on the big issue of the illegal trade or movement of birds. In addition to this, domestic legislation to implement the Commission decision restricting bird shows, fairs and markets came into force in England, Scotland and Wales on 28 October. Today, we have announced advice on allowing pigeon shows to go ahead under licence. We are also developing appropriate provisions to license pigeon racing. This legislation will help to prevent the spread of the avian influenza virus in the event of an outbreak.

We are working closely with key stakeholders to determine the policy, to design and deliver surveillance arrangements and to agree and issue guidance. Information on issues such as biosecurity and worker protection—the noble Baroness asked about these matters—has been made widely available. With the addition of interested parties we are currently developing a central poultry register to gather essential information about poultry species held on commercial properties for the purposes of risk assessment and the prevention and control of disease. This database will be another safeguard to help identify an outbreak and also to limit its spread. We are continuing our programme of surveillance in wild birds.

While evidence for the influence of migratory wild birds remains circumstantial, the Government are committed to increase levels of surveillance for possible presence of avian influenza virus. We are working with experts and ornithologists, such as staff at wetlands centres, and have published information regarding all this on the Defra website, which the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, was good enough to mention.

The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, talked about the international community and what we were doing. We are leading the fight to help the international community to eradicate avian influenza. Recently, we sent a delegation to a meeting hosted in the United States. As holders of the EU presidency, the United Kingdom has co-ordinated views and concerns from all European member states. Another delegation has been sent to Geneva for the WHO/FAO/OIE partners meeting. On a more practical note, we have also sent experts to Romania to help their response to avian influenza. The right reverend Prelate's point is well taken about poultry in that country.

Aside from the ban on the importation of wild birds, we have provided additional funding in excess of £6 million further to enhance our disease prevention programme, which includes import controls and quarantine procedures. In passing, I tell the noble Baroness that active research is going on—I am sure that she knows that—and we believe that we, in collaboration with other countries, are in the forefront of vaccination development of a new pandemic flu vaccine. But I will write to her at greater length about that.

The Government have prepared a contingency plan that will come into effect in the event of an outbreak of avian influenza in this country. It is the same plan as was used successfully to manage the outbreak of Newcastle disease earlier this year. It focuses on the early detection of avian influenza and rapid action to contain and control it in the event of an outbreak.

The contingency plan is routinely checked and tested in local exercises run by the State Veterinary Service, involving key operational partners when it is appropriate to do so. A national scale exercise thoroughly to test this plan is planned for early next year as the culmination of a number of smaller table-top exercises that began in October this year. Separate to that, a strategic level table-top exercise was held on 31 October involving senior officials from a number of government departments and agencies, in order to test the strategic level response arrangements and the communications strategy.

In the unlikely event of an outbreak of avian flu occurring before there is a supply of vaccine available, we have a substantial stockpile of the antiviral Tamiflu that will be given to all those at risk of infection. We have heard a lot about the recent case of avian influenza in a quarantine centre in Essex. I must say that I have to be cautious about what I say concerning that. It is quite right that the epidemiological report has now been published and that comment was made about it. I still need to be cautious about what I say. This shows, I would argue, that in fact the quarantine procedures were effective in this case because they gave early warning in preventing H5N1 entering the country, and the country remains free of the disease.

However, we want to continue to examine ways to improve this system, and a general review of our quarantine procedures and arrangements was announced in October. That matter was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, the noble Duke and many others. The review is being chaired by Professor Nigel Dimmock, the Emeritus Professor of Virology at Warwick University. Indeed, the results of the epidemiological report that I have just referred to will be fed into this important inquiry that is going on into quarantine policy.

Let me try and deal with some of the questions I was asked. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, accused us of lacking urgency. I have to remind her that the Government have a duty to take these issues very seriously; and we do. But we also have to make sure that we do not cause unnecessary alarm at the wrong time.

Government is about balance and trying to get it right. The noble Baroness can say that we have got the balance wrong here, if she wants to; but I argue strongly that we have it right. Regular risk assessments have been taking place. A contingency plan has been in place since July. That was fully tested with the Newcastle disease outbreak. It is updated and fully prepared. Bans need to be proportionate and always based on risk.

The noble Baroness and other noble Lords mentioned vaccination and the Chinese statement—because that is what it is at present—concerning vaccination. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, was very interesting on that point. There are no vaccines yet in the EU with marketing authorisation. Therefore, we would not be allowed to consume the products of vaccinated poultry. That is a commercial decision for the marketing authorities. However, it is right to point out that a number of factors concerning current vaccines that make them unsuitable as a single disease control measure. There is the fact that every bird would have to be injected and that it can take three weeks to develop immunity. That does not necessarily stop the bird becoming infected and spreading the virus, even though it has been vaccinated. The vaccine can mask signs of disease, which would be very difficult. So there are arguments to be had about vaccination.

I was asked about the zones. The State Veterinary Service and local authorities work together to publicise locally and visit premises. Zone sizes are set out and are consistent with all animal disease control policy. I was asked about numbers. I can tell the noble Baroness that between 1 January and 9 November this year, a total of 53,155 wild birds were imported into the UK.

I tell my noble friend Lord Stratford that it is not government policy to cull wild birds. Our policy is to control disease in domestic poultry and to continue to increase biosecurity.

I was asked about key workers. I will write to the noble Baroness with more detail about that. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, and the noble Duke mentioned the new directive. We hope to have political agreement by the end of this year to be implemented shortly after that which will enhance the current controls. Controls on low pathogenic AI, controls and surveillance of pigs in particular and regional and national movement restrictions will all be part of the thinking that goes into the new directive.

I have already run out of time. Finally, the right reverend Prelate asked what instructions have been given to households to prepare for any future pandemic. We have prepared publicity material for the public on avoiding the risks of infection and caring for sick family members and for general practitioners. It will be issued if needed; it has not been issued at present. The Secretary of State for Health has published her pandemic contingency plan and guidance.

I end by again thanking the noble Baroness for raising the subject today. It has been a short but worthwhile debate. I am sorry that I have not been able to say more in the course of my answer.

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes past six o'clock.