Scientists play down fears over spread of disease in UK

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The Government's chief scientist sought to reassure the public about the threat from avian flu yesterday as tests were carried out on birds across Britain following the outbreak of the disease's most deadly form.

Sir David King insisted there was no reason to panic because of confirmation that a mute swan had died from the H5N1 strain, which has caused the deaths of 108 people and millions of chickens in its march from Asia.

As emergency measures remained in force in Scotland to contain the outbreak, the foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001 had left Britain "probably better prepared than any other nation," Sir David said. Asked whether the arrival of H5N1 was a crisis, he replied: "I didn't describe this as a crisis, no. I don't think that one dead swan is a crisis."

His upbeat message came despite fears that the arrival of the most virulent form of bird flu could rapidly spread round the country and mutate into a form infectious between humans.

The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, said last year that bird flu could kill 50,000 people in Britain while a leaked Home Office paper on mass graves suggested the death toll could reach 320,000.

Amid warnings that the disease will have spread from the dead swan, the Government's Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, was yesterday testing at least 22 birds for signs of avian flu. Fourteen of the birds, including 12 swans, come from Scotland, where the swan was found 10 days ago. Tests were also being done on three gulls which were found dead at a boating lake in Gloucester and a duck carcass in Edgbaston, Birmingham.

The Cobra committee, the UK's emergency response team for national crises, met in Whitehall yesterday, chaired by Ben Bradshaw, the animal welfare minister, to discuss moves to contain the outbreak.

Emergency measures were concentrated around the village of Cellardyke, Fife, where the swan was found on 29 March. More than 100 farms, containing three million chickens in a 2,500 square kilometre (965 square mile) "wild bird risk area" around the village were urged to bring their animals indoors and to take other preventive measures.

All poultry within a three-kilometre (1.8-mile) zone around the dead bird were ordered indoors. Police were checking vehicles for chickens and turkeys.

Local shops and libraries displayed posters reminding people to keep their dogs on leads. Thousands of letters were sent to homes urging residents to ensure good hygiene. Across Britain, staff at public gardens patrolled their grounds for dead birds and zoos and wildlife parks took measures to protect their collections.

One of Britain's biggest unions, the T&G, called on Britain's poultry industry, worth £3bn-a-year, to vaccinate workers and their families against bird flu. The Food Standards Agency reiterated warnings for people to cook poultry and eggs properly to avoid the risk of infection.

Experts say that humans have only a minimal risk of catching bird flu in its current form, which generally spreads only to workers handling infected poultry.

Professor John Oxford, professor of virology at Barts and the Royal London Hospital, said: "You wouldn't catch this from walking past an infected bird. You would have to be touching its beak or plucking its feathers or getting yourself contaminated with droppings. The danger to humans at this stage is virtually zero. The danger for chickens and turkeys in the immediate area will be much higher."

Despite the reassurance, the virus, which was first detected in south-east Asia three years ago, has had a high personal and financial cost: 191 confirmed human cases of the H5N1 strain of the virus have been reported to the World Health Organisation, more than half of which have proved fatal. The authorities in Scotland were keen yesterday to play down the gravity of the arrival of H5N1, amid concerns about damage to tourism and poultry sales.

After meeting poultry farmers, Ross Finnie, the Scottish Executive's Environment and Rural Affairs minister, said: "The poultry producers who were present said they were very pleased with the proportionate nature of the response we have taken to this crisis. They were very confident that by applying these measures they were very hopeful they could contain this outbreak." He defended the decision of Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell, to stay in New York for the Tartan Day celebrations. Mr Finnie said: "What we're trying to do here, to borrow an insurance phrase, is, 'Don't turn a drama into a crisis'."

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs defended itself over suggestions that officials had reacted too slowly in collecting and testing the dead swan. Scientists suggested yesterday that while the Government took eight days to confirm the dead swan had died of bird flu, the results of tests could come back within hours. Defra said that the tests, among hundreds being done at the laboratory, had been complicated by the swan's decomposition.

Britain's leading four supermarkets - Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons - reported that the outbreak had little impact on poultry sales so far. A Tesco spokesman said: "Sales of poultry are still strong, so obviously the message is getting through to consumers that this isn't a food safety issue.

"Our staff are very well briefed in answering questions from customers. As far as we are concerned it is business as usual."

At Kew Gardens, west London, there was a heightened level of concern as staff performed daily early-morning patrols to check the health and status of resident and visiting birds. The Royal Edinburgh Zoo, which houses one bird extinct in the wild, the Socorro dove, London Zoo and Whipsnade Wild Animal Park were considering vaccinating their bird collections.

Birds at petting zoos, such as Battersea Park Children's Zoo, where children are able to play with animals, have separated their birds from other animals. Wetland centres, including the London Wetland Centre and Slimbridge in Gloucestershire are swabbing migratory birds and sending them for testing. At the Royal Parks, including Richmond Park and Regent's Park, staff have been told not to touch dead birds without gloves.

A spokesman said that the T in the Park music festival, in Kinross on 9 July, 35 miles from Cellardyke, would go ahead.