Testing for the spread of bird flu in Britain has been heavily cut, even as the danger from the disease has escalated, an Independent on Sunday investigation has revealed. And there is disturbing evidence that even such testing as is carried out is seriously flawed.
Official figures show that the number of wild birds tested by the Government has fallen by 17 per cent over the last year – at a time when ministers have urged the public to be vigilant – and that, even at their highest, the figures were running far behind similar monitoring levels in other European countries.
The revelation comes amid fears that the highly infectious H5N1 strain of the disease – which has killed millions of birds and 216 people worldwide – is now at large in Britain's wild bird population, after its discovery in three swans at Dorset's Abbotsbury Swannery last week.
Twenty-two Government vets are undertaking emergency "surveillance and monitoring" of wild birds in the county over the weekend, but critics accuse them of doing too little, too late.
Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative environment spokesman, yesterday called the decrease in testing "staggering", and is to write to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Hilary Benn, to demand an explanation.
The Abbotsbury discovery is the first occurrence of the disease in Britain that seems to have been caused by infection from wild birds. Outbreaks in East Anglian turkey farms last year could have been linked to the poultry trade, while an infected swan found in a Scottish harbour in 2006 seems to have died out at sea only to be washed ashore.
The Abbotsbury swans do not move from the area, suggesting the disease will have been brought to them by a wild bird. And since there is little migration from abroad at this time of year, there are fears the virus may have been at large, undetected, in Britain for months.
Yet only 2,990 wild birds were tested for the disease between August and December, compared with 3,504 during the same period in 2006. This compares with tens of thousands tested each year in countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs refuses to identify the sites where the testing is carried out, but little or none appears to be done over large swathes of the country, including the North-east, Cumbria and much of the Midlands and South-east England.
Furthermore, serious doubt is cast on the efficacy of the testing by its failure to pick up other, less deadly, forms of the disease. Only 0.16 per cent of the birds tested so far in Britain have been found to be infected by such forms, compared to about 20 per cent in Scandinavia and more than 6 per cent in the Netherlands. One reason may be that British tests do not put their samples in a preservative solution as is done in other countries, an omission that, experts say, could cause the virus to decompose.