Leading article: The headless chicken response

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The first reaction to the news that a parrot has died of bird flu in quarantine in Britain must be to echo the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Don't panic."

The deadly virus codenamed H5N1, which has killed about 60 people in Asia, has not yet gone through the crucial mutation that will make it highly infectious to people, thus sparking a flu pandemic that could kill tens of millions around the world. That is not to say that ministers should not be getting fully prepared for such a pandemic, which both the Government and the World Health Organisation say will arrive one day. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat, in charge of emergencies, appears to be doing well. The Department of Health, though lamentably slow off the mark, is taking the threat increasingly seriously. But the front line of defence against the virus arriving through imported or migrating birds, the Chief Veterinary Officer's group at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, inspires little confidence. After all, it was largely responsible for the BSE and foot and mouth fiascos. So there is every ground for concern, every reason to continue to press the Government to raise its game, but no cause whatsoever for panic.

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