Leading article: Incompetence, evasion and a crisis in public health

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The Independent Online

Once again a potentially major public health crisis is being handled with a mixture of evasion and incompetence by the Government and the professional health establishment. We had ample warning that bird flu might be on its way to Britain. So when it emerged at the end of last week that a parrot - part of a consignment of exotic birds from Surinam - had died of bird flu in a quarantine compound in Essex it did not come as a complete surprise.

But the timing of the announcement was somewhat out of the ordinary. The news that a parrot had died of bird flu was released by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs late on Friday evening. This pattern was repeated on Sunday when the tests results confirming that the deadly strain H5N1 had been detected in the bird were released to the media. It is a trick of this Government to release news at an inconvenient time for the media if it wants to diminish the impact of an announcement. It is not unreasonable to assume that this is what we are witnessing here.

News management is often used to conceal incompetence. It has now emerged that two parrots actually died and that the tissue from both was pooled into one sample when tested at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Surrey. According to Dr Debby Reynolds, the Chief Veterinary scientist at Defra, this was a "question of inefficiency". Whatever the truth, the upshot is that we are now ignorant as to whether both parrots - or just one - died of bird flu.

We are told that this case proves the quarantine system works and has prevented a dangerous virus from entering the country. Dr Reynolds has been keen to stress that Britain retains its bird flu-free status. But this is misleading. One of the primary purposes of quarantine is to prevent the cross-infection of animals. Yet it is now pretty clear that it was actually in quarantine that this parrot contracted bird flu. There have been no recorded instances of bird flu in South America where the parrot originated. Much more likely culprits are the 216 exotic birds from Taiwan that arrived in the same compound last month. Why birds from different countries were allowed to share "air space" in quarantine has not been explained. One avian veterinary surgeon believes there must have been a breakdown in the system. This is not comforting. How many other birds came into contact with the infected birds and were then subsequently released? The quarantine system may have actually aided the spread of the virus in Britain.

The shadow environment secretary, Oliver Letwin, is right to identify an inappropriate "business as usual" attitude from the Government. Why is Defra still unable to confirm whether those Taiwanese birds held in the compound have tested positive for bird flu? And why, it must be asked, are we allowing the import of wild birds from South Asia, the global hotspot for bird flu, at all?

The ineptitude of officialdom in the face of a major public health scare is nothing new of course. We saw it over BSE, salmonella and foot-and-mouth disease. The list of mishandled crises in Britain is a long one. And this is often mirrored in the reaction of civil society. Today we learn that city banks are attempting to stockpile the anti-viral treatment Tamiflu, despite the fact that there is a global shortage and that those who will need this vaccine most will be health and emergency workers, not bankers. There is an absence of rational thinking.

The Government must sharpen up its response. It should start by ensuring the EU Commission pushes through a total ban on live wild bird imports in Brussels today. Then is should urgently review its quarantine arrangements. Otherwise it could find public confidence evaporating - with potentially lethal consequences.