Bird flu 'as grave a threat as terrorism'

Bird flu is now as much of a danger to Britain as terrorism, ministers have been told by the Government's official emergency body.

Bird flu is now as much of a danger to Britain as terrorism, ministers have been told by the Government's official emergency body.

Top officials from the Civil Contingency Secretariat (CCS), part of the Cabinet Office, told a cabinet subcommittee last week that a flu pandemic - which it believes could kill 700,000 Britons - is now one of the most serious threats facing the country.

Plans are being made to close schools and cancel sporting fixtures in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, and official advice on how to try to avoid being infected will be ready for publication this summer.

Cobra, Britain's emergency committee, will co-ordinate attempts to fight the virus. But the Government accepts that, if the flu reaches Britain, there is no hope of stopping an epidemic, and that the only hope is to mitigate its effects.

The top-level warning comes as alarming evidence emerges from Asia that the virus, which has killed more than half of those known to have caught it, is spreading. Patchy reports from China and Vietnam suggest that the disease is affecting larger clusters of people, raising concern that it is mutating into a highly infectious strain that will sweep through the world. The World Health Organisation has warned that "the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic", while the Food and Agriculture Organisation calls it a "sword of Damocles" hanging over the globe.

Last week's warning was delivered by the CCS's head, Bruce Mann, to the cabinet subcommittee. The secretariat, which says its job is to "look for trouble", keeps tabs on about 100 potential threats from floods to major accidents in factories to a terrorist attack. It now rates bird flu as among the greatest of them all.

On the same day as the ministerial warning, Britain had its first official exercise to prepare for the epidemic. Operation Arctic Sea was staged in the East Midlands to test capabilities to deal with mass illness and death. Officials have also been scouring the country to find sites for mass mortuaries, but Sarah Webb, a regional health emergency planning adviser for the official Health Protection Agency, says that military bases which had been investigated for the purpose had been declared "off-limits" to them "because of Iraq activities".

Official advice is being prepared to help people to cut the risk of catching the disease - including simple hygiene, staying at home, and avoiding gatherings of people - and local authorities are urged to get prepared. But Steve Miller, the head of public protection for the London Borough of Newham, told a seminar organised by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health last week that there was still "some lethargy".

He said: "The biggest drawback is that people feel it is not their job, but somebody else's, or that someone will tell them what to do. We are late, but not too late."

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