Ministers forced to defend handling of flu outbreak

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The Government has defended its handling of the H5N1 avian flu outbreak in Suffolk as scientists continue to investigate how the deadly virus penetrated the supposedly bio-secure facility on a Bernard Matthews turkey farm.

Workers at the farm, normally paid £6-£8 an hour, were offered double time yesterday to come and help with the task of gassing the 159,000 birds but many declined. A Portugese worker aged 28 said: "I was asked if I wanted to join the slaughter but I refused even though it would have been good money. I am a father with three children and I was worried about the health implications. I know they had a bit of a problem finding enough people."

Those who joined the cull were given protective clothing, vaccinations and issued with Tamiflu tablets to ward off possible infection.

Ben Bradshaw, the Environment minister, denied there had been a delay in testing for the virus or establishing an exclusion zone around the affected farm after the birds started to die on Tuesday last week. Culling of the turkeys at the farm was due to be completed last night.

Russia followed Japan in banning British poultry imports yesterday, and Tesco reported a dip in poultry sales, despite reassurance from scientists that the virus had not entered the food chain and poultry was safe to eat.

"The biggest threat to the poultry industry is not avian influenza. It is a backlash from consumers," said John Widdowson, a free-range poultry farmer. "Every day that goes by with no further outbreak we become more confident it is under control."

The Netherlands and Norway ordered restrictions on commercial poultry in their own countries over the weekend. The Dutch farm ministry ordered farmers to keep poultry indoors.

The outbreak of the H5N1 virus at the farm in Holton, Suffolk, is the biggest among commercial poultry in Europe. Mr Bradshaw said: "There were a small number of birds that died on Tuesday and on Wednesday but nothing unusual in a flock of this size. You do get birds dying in those sorts of numbers."

"It wasn't until Thursday, when more than 800 birds died, that the Bernard Matthews vet quite rightly informed the local state veterinary service and we immediately put restrictions on that farm. So this idea that there was some delay is simply wrong."

Tests were carried out on Friday, and the strain was identified as H5N1 on Saturday morning when exclusion zones were immediately imposed. Mr Bradshaw rejected suggestions the exclusion zones should have been imposed earlier.

"We get reports all the time of suspected bird diseases. If we were then to put 3km or 10km zones in before we had confirmation, we would put a lot of unnecessary restrictions on a lot of very unhappy farmers."

David Miliband, Secretary of State for Rural Affairs, told MPs the risk to the public had been assessed by health experts as negligible. He added: "Our goals are clear - to stamp out the disease, to protect public health, to protect animal health and welfare, and to regain disease-free status in the UK."

Asked about the source of the contamination, Mr Miliband said: "I think we have always said the likeliest route is from a wild bird. That remains the case. We are looking at all possibilities."

Experts discounted suggestions that the virus, which only survives for a few hours outside the body, might have been brought to Suffolk on a lorry or the boots of a worker from Hungary, where there was an outbreak of the same strain of H5N1 among geese.

Bernard Matthews owns Saga poultry, the largest poultry producer in Hungary. But a company spokesman said: "No live birds came from Hungary and lorries don't go anywhere near the affected farm [in Suffolk] . No staff or workers from Hungary have visited the farm. The Hungarian government's senior veterinarian has said there is no link. Anthony Greenleaves, head of Veterinary Public Health has said they are not investigating Bernard Matthews meat or vehicles from Hungary."

The National Farmers' Union urged shoppers to keep buying British poultry. Charles Bourns, chairman of the NFU's poultry board, said: "Just keep eating chicken and enjoying it. There is no danger from it. This is a disease of chickens and not of humans."

Containing the outbreak

Russia

Russian officials have banned imports of British poultry from today to prevent the spread of bird flu. The ban applies to deliveries of live birds, eggs and bird meat as well as poultry feed and equipment for breeding, butchering and dressing.

Ireland

Importers in Ireland have to apply for fresh licences to bring in eggs, poultry and captive birds and there is a ban on bringing live birds to the Irish Republic for events like pigeon racing.

The Netherlands

Dutch farmers have been told to keep their birds indoors or behind chicken wire.

Japan

Japan, which has had four H5N1 outbreaks at poultry farms this year, has joined Russia in banning poultry imports from the UK.

France

The French Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau called for vigilance but said that there was no need for concern.

The EU

The top health official, commissioner Markos Kyprianou, said he was confident the EU could contain the outbreak of the H5N1 virus. Greece was the first member of the EU to confirm a case of bird flu, in October 2005.

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