Avian Influenza in Northern Ireland

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 14th December 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 14th December 2021

I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in the light of social distancing being observed by the parties, my ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must do likewise but may do so by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not an opportunity for debate per se, and long introductions should not be made. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or in the question period thereafter.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make an urgent statement to the Assembly on the current avian influenza outbreak across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Epizootic diseases such as avian influenza are animal diseases that are not usually present in Northern Ireland. They have the potential to cause serious animal health, public health and economic consequences. Maintaining disease freedom is paramount to underpinning the international trade of live animals and products of animal origin. Commonly known as bird flu, avian influenza is a highly contagious viral disease. Avian influenza strains can be distinguished as being notifiable or non-notifiable. A notifiable disease is any disease that is required by law to be reported to government authorities. In cases in which a notifiable strain of avian influenza is confirmed, my Department is required to cull and dispose of affected poultry humanely in order to prevent further disease spread. Compensation for birds culled is payable in such circumstances. Avian influenza can also be distinguished as being highly pathogenic or low pathogenic. Low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) causes mild disease in poultry but can mutate into highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)

Highly pathogenic avian influenza causes severe disease in birds, with high mortality levels. It has a severe impact on production and trade. It may also pose a threat to people and to other animals in certain circumstances. We are facing a highly pathogenic strain. It is a significant threat to our valued poultry industry, which is worth over £400 million and supports many thousands of jobs.

On 17 November, prior to any confirmed cases in Northern Ireland and in consideration of the evolving situation across Great Britain at that time, I took a decision to introduce an avian influenza prevention zone across all of Northern Ireland in order to reduce the risk of infection amongst poultry flocks here. The measures in the prevention zone include stringent, mandatory biosecurity measures to help prevent the spread of disease from wild birds or another source to poultry. I cannot reiterate enough that all poultry or bird keepers, whether commercial or backyard, must adhere to the measures to protect their flocks. As a further measure to reduce risk, I introduced a mandatory housing order, effective from Monday 29 November. This disease prevention measure legally requires all birds to be housed or otherwise kept separate from wild birds.

As of today, Great Britain is on day 49 of the outbreak. To date, 48 cases of HPAI H5N1 have been confirmed across Great Britain since the first case was confirmed in England on 26 October 2021. The types of premises infected range from backyard flocks to significant commercial premises in excess of 100,000 birds. In addition, over 300 confirmed cases of HPAI H5N1 have been detected in wild birds across Great Britain.

In the Republic of Ireland, as of today, HPAI H5N1 has been confirmed at five commercial holdings: four in County Monaghan and one in County Cavan. The disease control zones for two of the cases in County Monaghan and the County Cavan case extend into Northern Ireland. My Department has, therefore, established corresponding disease control zones as required.

As of today, there are four — two confirmed and two suspected — cases of HPAI H5N1 in Northern Ireland. There is one outbreak in Aughnacloy, County Tyrone; one in Broughshane, County Antrim; one near Armagh, County Armagh; and one outside Coagh, County Tyrone. The Chief Veterinary Officer introduced 3 kilometre and 10 kilometre disease control zones around all infected premises and has directed the humane culling of all birds in each premises. The humane culling has been completed at three of the four sites; the Coagh premises culling has still to be completed.

Maps and full details of the scope and measures required within the disease control zone are available on the DAERA website and have been communicated to industry stakeholders. The Department has also written to flock keepers in both zones to make them aware of developments and the measures now in place. The disease control zones are a vital measure to mitigate the onward spread of the disease from the infected premises. All movement of poultry and poultry products within the disease control zones is required to be licensed. A movement licensing centre was established on 1 December in the Strabane and Enniskillen DAERA Direct offices to facilitate that. Having a licence for movement within the zones is a legal requirement to ensure that strict biosecurity measures are being taken for moves within, into or out of zones.

The four cases in Northern Ireland bring the UK total to 52. I must stress that this is the largest ever outbreak of avian influenza across these islands, with, as I said, 52 cases across the United Kingdom and five in the Republic of Ireland. Furthermore, as of today, my Department has confirmed cases of HPAI H5N1 in 10 wild birds across Northern Ireland. These have been at the Waterworks, Belfast; Belfast lough; Monlough; Hillsborough; and Loughshore, Portadown. My Department collects dead wild birds for avian influenza surveillance purposes in order to help understand if and when the virus is present in Northern Ireland and how it is distributed geographically. Once HPAI has been detected in an area, testing is no longer required.

As a result of the wild bird HPAI H5N1 findings in Northern Ireland, it is clear that the native wild bird population has been affected by the strain being carried here by migratory birds. There is strong evidence that HPAI is now widespread in the environment. As a result, my Department currently does not need to test wild birds for surveillance purposes. This week, therefore, my officials took the decision to cease all collection of wild birds with immediate effect. My Department's primary function is the control of avian influenza in poultry flocks; it is not involved in the control of the disease in wild species. Where dead wild birds are not required for surveillance purposes, it is the landowner's responsibility to safely dispose of their carcasses. My officials continue to work closely with a wide range of public bodies, including local councils, and in close collaboration with the Public Health Agency (PHA), to provide advice and guidance, as appropriate.

The risk of further high-pathogenic incursions to domestic poultry in Northern Ireland is assessed as moderate, and stringent biosecurity measures continue to play a key role in the potential of reducing the risk posed to each flock. A veterinary risk assessment completed by officials highlighted the fact that it is imperative that the poultry industry and all keepers of birds review and reinforce their biosecurity arrangements, including the physical separation of wild birds from poultry and captive birds. That remains the most effective protection against an incursion of avian influenza. Therefore, I again call on all poultry keepers, backyard and commercial: you must assess your biosecurity measures today. You must redouble your efforts to keep this disease out of your flocks. You cannot afford to be complacent; you must act now. It is paramount that the utmost stringent biosecurity measures are adopted on your premises and that all poultry, as well as their food and water, are kept separate from wild birds. My Department has biosecurity advice and guidance, including a biosecurity checklist, on the avian influenza web page of the DAERA website. It is available for anyone to download and can be accessed on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. I urge every bird keeper in Northern Ireland to regularly consider that checklist and assure themselves that they can tick every box on it. If even one box remains unticked, there is a gap in your biosecurity. This virus can find those gaps, with devastating consequences.

My officials frequently meet industry stakeholders to engage closely with them about the current avian influenza outbreak and to ensure that the message of adopting stringent biosecurity measures is being broadcast as far and as wide as possible. That will ensure that the risk to the Northern Ireland poultry flock is reduced as much as possible. We must all continue to be vigilant throughout the winter months. My Department has been working closely with key partners, including, as mentioned, the Public Health Agency, to communicate key messages and provide up-to-date advice to the general public.

The Public Health Agency has advised that instances of human infections by avian influenza are rare, that it is primarily a disease of birds, and that the risk to the health of the general public is very low. In addition, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has made it clear that avian influenza does not pose a food-safety risk to UK consumers. Be assured that my Department will continue to prioritise all possible actions to deal with this incursion and to progress to eradication as quickly as possible in order to protect our industry and our rural communities. It is imperative, however, that we all play our part and take action now to ensure that we use the highest possible biosecurity, that birds are housed and that we all remain vigilant to this terrible disease. Thank you for your time, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the fact that DAERA is treating this issue with the urgency that it deserves. I also thank the Minister for the fact that his officials came to the Committee on Thursday to give us a briefing on this issue.

Minister, you said that this disease:

"may also pose a threat to people and to other animals in certain circumstances".

I want to focus on those "certain circumstances". Apart from the obvious mental anguish that this brings to bird keepers who must contend with huge economic damage to their businesses and livelihoods, what are the circumstances in which this may impact on human health?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 10:45 am, 14th December 2021

We are reliant on the Public Health Agency for advice on that issue. It has indicated that it is very rare for a human to contract the disease. There have been cases in the Far East; people who are in incredibly close contact with birds have managed to pick up the virus. It is less likely to be airborne and more likely to be associated with physical contact. Therefore, wearing gloves, disposable boiler suits and boots that do not go out of the house and are cleansed and disinfected at all times are ways of keeping the infection out of the bird population and, at the same time, keeping the owner of the birds secure.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement on this worrying trend. Yesterday, I spoke to the poultry farmer affected in my constituency. He was very appreciative of the help and advice from the Minister's Department. What advice can the Minister give to poultry owners with commercial backyard flocks to ensure that the disease transmission is mitigated as much as possible?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It is about scrupulous hygiene and disinfection. Clean clothes, footwear and hands thoroughly before and after contact with birds. Keep vehicles and equipment clear. Wash the concrete apron outside regularly, because you can carry the disease in from wild bird droppings. Do not use the same boots outside as you do inside. Ensure that you use disposable boiler suits. Keep all visitors away from your birds unless it is absolutely essential, and make sure that they follow the same regime as you do. If you import birds, ensure that you buy healthy stock from a reliable source. Separate and isolate new or ill stock. Minimise contact with wild birds — in particular, waterfowl — and keep records of all birds moving on or off your premises. Make sure that your feed and water cannot be accessed by wild birds. Avoid sharing equipment, or cleanse and disinfect shared equipment before and after use. Buy your feed from a reputable mill or supplier. Make sure that you train your staff to recognise disease and to react to any suspicion. Keep an up-to-date contact list of key people, and develop a contingency plan. If you suspect disease, act quickly and consult your vet.

Rodents are a particular problem; they carry the disease. Ensuring that your house is rodent-proof, including sealing all doors so that mice or rats cannot access them, is critical, because they will carry the disease in and out. Finally, prevent water ingress by ensuring that all your roofs are well sealed. You should, of course, follow safety precautions if you are fixing a roof. Ensure that all roofs, spouts and so forth are well sealed so that there is no water ingress to the houses.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement and answers thus far. Mr Irwin said that his constituent was very grateful for the advice that he received from your Department, Minister. Will any financial support be available to affected businesses, and, if so, how quickly will that be made available to them?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

This is a highly pathogenic strain of the disease, which makes it a notifiable disease. As such, the Department is responsible for culling, and compensation for the livestock is available. There is not compensation for loss of trade or business for the period that you will not be able to have your house filled with birds. Therefore, it is incumbent on flock owners to ensure that they take all those biosecurity measures; if they get that disease, it will cause a financial loss to them. We will pick up the pieces in terms of the culling and the compensation for the birds, but there will still be a financial consideration for each person. One of the things that we may look at is levels of biosecurity. If people have poor levels of biosecurity, one has to question whether compensation is a good use of public money. However, where people have high levels of biosecurity and still get the disease, we want to fully compensate them.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. To go back to the support that Mr Durkan mentioned in the previous question, my understanding is that you are offering support with the culling and compensation to cover the birds that have already been culled. What further support will you put in place for those farmers to help them restart after two or three months?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The process is directed by the law on notifiable diseases. We do not have the ability to offer support beyond the culling and the compensation for the cost of the birds. That makes it all the more important that everybody works together to reduce the impact of the disease.

You can be very sure that the disease is in the environment, and it could be in the environment around your poultry flock, be that backyard or commercial. If the birds are secure inside, it is down to each individual to ensure that they do not carry that disease in from outside or allow someone or something else to carry it inside. In most cases, good biosecurity should mean that you avoid the spread of the bird flu. Where biosecurity is poor, you are leaving yourself vulnerable.

The best message that I can give to people is this: we will support you insofar as we can, but the best thing that you can do is to support yourself with high-quality biosecurity.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. At the AERA Committee meeting last Thursday, I asked a number of questions about meetings with councils. A meeting planned for that day had been postponed until the following day, which was Friday. Have those meetings taken place? Will there be further update meetings with councils and other public bodies that have in their ownership publicly accessible land that contains wild birds?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the question. Our Veterinary Service is pretty stretched with all this and is using up considerable resource in responding to the disease. There will be a demand for that resource for at least the next three to four months. So, our staff will be under significant pressure, particularly with the control zones being put in place. The monitoring of those control zones and all the movements that take place within them, which is extensive, will involve considerable work.

Along with that, it is important that we have as much information shared as possible. The sharing of information between ourselves and the councils is important. We are also sharing information with other Administrations, be they in the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain. I spoke to George Eustice last week about the situation, and my officials are in regular contact with all the Administrations. That communication is important so that everybody pulls in the same direction to ensure that we have the right response.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. He has clearly identified how serious the virus is. In his response to Mr Blair, he talked about the monitoring. Will he further clarify how his Department will make sure that biosecurity is carried out in individual poultry premises within the 3 kilometre and 10 kilometre control zones? Beyond those control zones, what type of monitoring is his Department doing?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Our officials will provide advice. We do not have the staff to go around and check that everybody is following it to the letter of the law, but, where there is evidence that individuals are not being as particular as they might be, our staff will call. However, it is really up to each individual because there is a loss here for each individual who is involved. Let us be very clear: nobody will profit or gain from their birds getting avian influenza. There will a loss for everyone involved.

Therefore, it is for everyone to hold the ropes and take up that pressure to ensure that all the right steps are taken so that loss does not occur in their flock, they provide the best biosecurity for their flock, and, consequently, the spread of the disease will be limited.

It is evident that the disease is common among the wild bird population. We do not have the ability to do what we did with COVID and engage in the isolation or lockdown of wild birds, so we cannot stop the spread in that way, and neither do we have a vaccine with which we could go out and vaccinate that wild bird population. It will have to spread to the point at which it stops spreading in the wild bird population. Our view is that it will be prevalent over the next three or four months. Were we to have really cold weather conditions, that would help, but those have not arrived just yet.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

First, we must be mindful of the trauma that flock keepers are going through at this time. Given the high viral load in the wild bird population, whose responsibility is it to dispose of dead birds or, indeed, to ensure that bird welfare is monitored and appropriate action taken?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We are directed by statute. The wild bird population is the responsibility of the landowner. If somebody owns a lake, for example, the responsibility lies with that individual. If the land is owned by a council, it is that council's responsibility. If the land is owned by Forest Service, it is for Forest Service. If the land is in a country park, it is for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). Those are the people who are responsible for the welfare of the animals on their site and the disposal of dead animals from the site. I understand, for example, that some councils have vets to assist them, which is positive.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. As he rightly stated, controlling this disease is paramount to allowing international trade of poultry products. What measures are being taken to minimise the potential impacts of avian flu on access to international poultry markets?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The risk of spread of the disease is gone when slaughter takes place and it is not spreading through eggs. Given that, we can continue to sell at the moment. There may be an issue with hatching eggs, but that remains to be seen. However, at the moment, we continue to sell in local, national and international markets, and we will continue to provide that support to ensure that businesses can continue to do that. The poultry industry is important to Northern Ireland, accounting for some £400 million of turnover. Over 10,000 people are employed in that industry. It is an extensive industry, and we need to support and help it through this crisis. My Department will not be found wanting when it comes to that.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement and the action that he and his Department have taken to date to try to stop the spread of this influenza. Minister, in your statement, you talked about meeting frequently with stakeholders and engaging closely with them on the matter. What interactions have your officials had with other relevant Departments across the United Kingdom and, indeed, across the border in the Republic of Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We have been engaging with local authorities in Northern Ireland. We are engaging with other Departments and departmental agencies, such as the Public Health Agency, which provides advice to the public about their health. I have also engaged directly with the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice. My officials have been engaging with officials in other parts of Great Britain and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland. There has been substantial coordination between all officials to address the issues that need to be addressed in order to control the disease and minimise its spread.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 11:00 am, 14th December 2021

I thank the Minister for his statement. I declare an interest: after close on six decades, I am now the owner of a dog and spend a lot of time out in the countryside. Minister, given the outbreak of avian flu and the way in which it has moved into the wild bird population, what are we doing to inform the public about the challenges? How do we make sure that people do not go around picking up dead birds and that they are fully aware of the challenges set by avian flu?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Through mainstream and social media, we have been putting out messages over and over again to inform and advise the public. Anyone who has a concern can call the helpline, and people can also visit the DAERA website, which gives advice on all these issues. If people are sensible, they will seek to follow sensible guidelines and instructions on these issues and not act on impulse. This is a situation that should be left to the experts. We have the expertise to deal with and mitigate this disease, and the full force of that expertise is in place right now. If people have any queries, they should put them to the appropriate source.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I welcome the Minister's statement. Minister, I want to clarify a point. Clearly, the disease does not recognise borders or boundaries, and there should be a cross-border approach to deal with it. Your answer to a previous question has not convinced me that you have had discussions with the relevant Department in the South. Surely, if we are serious about addressing avian flu, we need to have those discussions. You said that this is one of the biggest outbreaks, so what discussions have you had with the relevant Departments?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for his question. All the outbreaks in Ireland have been in the province of Ulster — Cavan, Monaghan, County Tyrone, County Armagh and County Antrim. There has been considerable engagement between my officials and officials in the Irish Republic on this. We have assisted, I understand, with culls, and we will continue to work very closely with each other. People at the highest levels of each veterinary service will share their knowledge and expertise, and they will support each other in every way that they can. I am entirely supportive of that to ensure that we minimise the disease on the island of Ireland and, at the same time, in the British Isles.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, I am conscious of the commercial and financial impacts on many people. Coming from a farming background, however, I also understand the huge emotional impact on those who keep animals when their animals have to be culled. In light of that, what supports are in place for those who have been impacted in Aughnacloy, Coagh, Broughshane, Armagh and in other places where the disease will develop? Has Rural Support in Cookstown been contacted?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes. My Department supports a number of organisations that deliver care and support for people in rural communities. We have found those organisations hugely helpful in the past. In severe outbreaks of TB, for example, which are quite common, people may lose a considerable part of their herd or their entire herd. Those organisations have the expertise to provide support to those who wish to have it. Many people will just knuckle down and do not want others to be about or to talk to others. There are, however, those who will need to talk to others.

I say to anyone who is feeling depressed or down, be they people belonging to flock owners who have lost birds in this circumstance or anyone else, to seek that support, care and help, because it is out there. If you are in a rural community and need support, you should contact the organisations that are providing support. You will find a lot of expertise, care, knowledge and guidance to help you through a particularly difficult time.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I thank the Minister for his statement. It is indeed a very distressing time for all bird keepers.

Minister, in your response to Mr Blair, you said that communication is absolutely important, and of course it is. The first confirmed cases of the outbreak were in swans at Belfast City Council's Waterworks park in north Belfast. I believe that that was on 25 November. As Mr Blair said, we heard from your officials that a meeting with councils had yet to take place. On the issue of communication, are you content that this is being dealt with with the urgency that is required?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There appeared to be some misunderstanding at the outset over who had responsibility for the swans. There was therefore communication to that effect so that everybody understood each body's legal position and responsibility. Since then, Belfast City Council has been doing all that it can to deal with the issue, and it is dealing with it very responsibly. The Department will give the council guidance and support and share information with it to assist it in dealing with the problem at the Waterworks and, indeed, at Belfast lough.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I will return to the question about the capacity of the veterinary staff to deal with this worsening situation. With increased demands on our vets and their staff, would it not be preferable to maximise the availability of such staff to deal with the situation by withdrawing them from the implementation of the protocol so that they might do an important job?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Staff are being pulled from all areas of the Veterinary Service to assist with this. As I indicated, it is going to take time. Right across the Department, be they from the ports, be they working up strategies and policies or be they from the team that is developing the replacement for the animal and public health information system (APHIS), they are being pulled and brought back in to provide support for that particular service. Vets who have not been involved in that type of work for a long time are now front and centre in providing assistance and support. It will be happening in all areas of veterinary, including the one that Mr Allister mentioned. It is something that I have raised with veterinary officials.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Minister, no other Members have indicated that they wish to ask a question on the statement. Members, please take your ease for a few moments before we move to the next item of business.