Avian Flu - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 16 November 2022.

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Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative 3:29, 16 November 2022

To ask His Majesty’s Government how they ensure that there is a regular exchange of information with other countries on the prevalence and spread of avian flu in migratory bird populations; and what steps they are taking in this regard to protect the health of seabirds and waterfowl.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, international collaboration and knowledge exchange is facilitated through the World Organisation for Animal Health by the UK Chief Veterinary Officer and the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s international reference laboratory. The UK’s membership of the Ospar-Helcom-ICES joint working group on birds and the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement are also key forums for improving collaboration, monitoring and information sharing on avian influenza in migratory birds. Defra has commissioned Natural England to assess the vulnerability of seabird species and recommend actions.

Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative

I thank the Minister very much for his reply and for putting in place a wild bird avian influenza strategy to assess the impact of this desperately damaging disease. In view of the fact that the United Kingdom and European nations are in the grip of the worst ever outbreak of bird flu, will he now consider widening and strengthening the Government’s current measures to create a fully comprehensive avian flu response action plan, working in co-operation with the devolved Governments? This plan could include improved seabird site protection measures and the encouragement of research and development on more effective vaccines for domestic birds.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My noble friend is absolutely right to raise the importance of an international response to this. I assure him that there is almost daily collaboration across the devolved Governments and through international fora such as the ones I just mentioned. We are also consulting our European colleagues in the European Food Safety Authority closely; we have two officials on the panel working on this. This requires an international response. The impact it is having on our wild bird population and on domestic birds in poultry farming and other settings is tragic. We are working really hard, with a sense of real emergency, to try to find solutions, but it is a very difficult one to solve as it is now endemic in the wild bird population.

Photo of Lord Trees Lord Trees Crossbench

My Lords, as we have heard, avian flu is causing devastating disease in wild birds but also in our domestic fowl population. Is the Minister aware of recent research using gene-edited chicken cells in culture, which has created cells that can resist avian influenza? Does he agree that gene editing offers great hope that in future we can control the disease, at least in domesticated birds?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do agree. On Monday we will debate the Second Reading of the precision breeding Bill. It will take a number of years for the measures in that Bill to become effective, but it will undoubtedly have an impact on this kind of disease, to which we will be able to improve resistance in plant and animal species.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, some strains of avian flu are transmissible to humans. Some are very mild but others are more aggressive. Of 868 cases of human infection recorded between 2003 and October 2022, more than half—456—resulted in death. The traditional flu season is approaching. Those with flu-like symptoms tend to self-isolate and not visit the GP. How will the Government accurately assess the level of avian flu among humans in the UK and record the number of resulting deaths?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The medical advice we have received is that although this is a zoonosis and can therefore be transferred from birds to humans, the risk is low. There was one case in the UK last year, in an elderly gentleman who recovered. We give clear guidance on how to work with birds, whether in a domestic fowl setting or in picking up carcasses of birds that have died of avian influenza. There is very clear guidance on this and members of the public should be wary of getting into close association with sick birds.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour

My Lords, have the Government estimated, with stakeholders in the poultry business, of how long supermarket rationing will last? Is it a case of weeks or months?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There have been a number of reports of difficulties of supply. I can say that my fingers and toes are crossed when it comes to turkeys for Christmas. On egg supply, about which there has been a bit of publicity today, I can tell the House that there has been a 4.11% decrease in production, not entirely due to avian influenza. It is worth reporting that we have 38 million laying hens in this country, around 812,000 of which have died or been culled since the beginning of October. That is a 2.1% reduction in the population, with a 4.11% effect on egg production. We think that is okay. There is no need to dash to the supermarket to get eggs. We believe that the supply is safe but we are monitoring the situation on the daily basis.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

Does my noble friend agree that these diseases are likely to increase because of the effect of climate change? I declare my interest as chairman of the Climate Change Committee. Is he really sure that his department has adequate resources and adequate people working not just on avian flu but on the other pests and diseases that we are likely to have to face?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I invite my noble friend to join me in my monthly security meeting, which draws together people from across Defra and its agencies, looking at the risks coming from near and far. That can be quite a sobering experience. He is absolutely right that a combination of climate change and the globalised movement of people is bringing greater risks to our shores. I am full of admiration for the work that is done, and I assure him that an enormous amount of horizon-scanning goes on in trying to see where the next risk is coming from and what we can do to mitigate it.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, breeding seabirds have been badly hit, particularly great skuas. Last winter on the Solway Firth, the disease killed over 16,000 barnacle geese. Seabirds are long-lived so they take longer to reach breeding age and have fewer chicks. They are already under massive pressure from climate change, a lack of prey fish and deaths from entanglement in fishing gear. What surveillance and testing systems exist for seabirds? Earlier the Minister mentioned dead birds and public health. What guidance is there on carcass removal and disposal for wild birds? What are the Government doing to prioritise and fund seabird conservation?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The noble Baroness is right that this is a tragedy for populations of particular seabirds. Bass Rock, just south of Edinburgh, has been white for centuries but is now black; that is a visual reminder of the impact the disease is having.

I assure her that we are working hard. Information is available on the GOV.UK website about what people should do if they find a bird or are concerned about one. We are calling in the best advice. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee has been commissioned to set up an advisory recovery group on monitoring data and evidence on whether existing conservation interventions are working and new conservation interventions that may help.

As I said, we are working internationally through the European Food Safety Authority. Our chief vet is in regular contact with colleagues in Ireland and elsewhere, including of course in the devolved Governments. We have a clear strategy, which is available for people to see, to resolve the issue.

Dealing with the disease in poultry settings is vital but it is harder to deal with among wild birds. Still, we have a clear strategy to try to mitigate it. Some possible good news is that there is evidence that some birds are developing degrees of resistance to avian flu, but it is too early to say why that is or quite what the effect will be.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

My Lords, early in this outbreak there were gaps in the collection of wild birds’ carcasses, between local authorities, landowners and Defra. Is the Minister now convinced that those gaps have been filled and that lessons have been learned for inevitable future outbreaks of avian flu?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I cannot tell the noble Lord that there will never be any problems. I can report that yesterday, for example, there was a park in a town where the council said that it was not its job to pick up carcasses, it was the Environment Agency’s—which said that it was someone else’s job. These things happen. We are trying to be as clear as we can with the guidance. There should be no silo thinking here. We need these matters resolved as quickly as possible. I can assure the noble Lord that if he has any reports of where there are difficulties, I will take it up and we will try to iron them out, but there are clear processes. This is an emergency that we are dealing with on a national scale.