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Fury at government delays after bird flu outbreak

London Telegraph | February 4, 2007
David Harrison

There was mounting anger over the official response to the outbreak of bird flu at a poultry farm last night after it was confirmed that the strain of disease is the deadly H5N1 virus.

As scientists verified that the virus at the Bernard Matthews farm was the deadliest strain, it emerged that the first 71 birds died last Tuesday. But the outbreak was not reported to government vets until Thursday evening, after another 1,000 died.

It took a further two days before European Union scientists managed to conduct tests and were able to confirm that the virus at the farm, in Holton, near Halesworth, was H5N1.

Even after that, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) took until yesterday evening to impose the obligatory exclusion zone because legal wrangles meant the required forms had not been signed in time.

A Defra official also admitted that some of the farm's 1,000 workers had been walking around the site, between the 22 sheds used to house the birds, for two days before their movements were restricted. "They were walking around like nothing's happened," said a local man. "They didn't seem to realise how serious this is."

More than 2,600 turkeys have died, all from the same shed. All 160,000 on the farm will be slaughtered.

Jim Paice, the Tory agriculture spokesman, said: "These delays and lack of discipline are totally unacceptable.

"Defra did several exercises last year on how we should react to an outbreak of bird flu and it seems it has failed to get the message across to the farmers, vets and to its own staff."

It is the second time in less than a year that British-reared poultry has been affected. More than 30,000 were slaughtered after chickens near Dereham, Norfolk, tested positive last April, but they had the far less dangerous H7N3 strain. In May, a wild swan tested positive for the H5N1 strain in Scotland, but was an isolated case.

H5N1 has infected 270 people and killed at least 164 around the world since 2003, most of them in Asia.

More than 200 million birds have died or been killed to prevent its spread but there are fears that the virus could mutate to a strain transmitted easily from person to person, creating a pandemic.

Last night, there was also concern about vaccines. The Government announced last month that it was offering free flu jabs for poultry workers in an attempt to stop new forms of the disease emerging, but a Transport and General Workers Union spokesman said only "a handful" of workers at Holton had been vaccinated.

The Health Protection Agency said that "three vanloads" of workers at the factory who came into contact with infected birds have now been given the anti-viral drug Tamiflu and seasonal flu vaccines.

As David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, called an emergency "telephone meeting" of Cobra, the civil contingencies committee, scientists at the EU laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey, were carrying out further tests to find out whether the virus is the fatal Asian sub-strain. The source of the virus is not known, but speculation focused on wild birds. There were suspicions that it could have been brought in by birds or people from Hungary, where the H5N1 virus was confirmed last week and where Bernard Matthews has turkey farms.

Defra said bird shows and pigeon racing were banned and wider restrictions may be imposed in the area. The National Farmers' Union urged members to ensure biosecurity measures were firmly in place.

The outbreak will top the agenda at Tuesday's meeting of the EU committee of senior vets. Thirteen EU countries have had H5N1 outbreaks since early 2006. David Catlow, the president of the British Veterinary Association, said there was "no extra risk to eating poultry" but the poultry industry is braced for a consumer backlash.

A Bernard Matthews spokesman said: "None of the affected birds entered the food chain and there is no risk to consumers. The company meets and in many cases far exceeds Defra's biosecurity standards for combating avian flu."


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