Birds sneeze and ministers catch fright

Observations on avian flu

At least someone has been candid. Sir Liam Donaldson, the government's chief medical officer, has been saying for some time that the arrival of bird flu on our shores is a "biological inevitability".

The surprise is that anyone is surprised by the appearance of an infected duck in France, a major migratory pit stop for wildfowl. As birds start their seasonal migration back from Africa and the Mediterranean basin over the next few weeks, more cases are expected in the estuaries and marshes that fringe northern Europe.

For the past three years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been doing its best to warn of a global spread of the influenza A virus H5N1, as scientists charted its unsteady progress from south-east Asia across the Urals, down in Africa and across the European wetlands. Human casualties have so far been few, with 169 recorded cases of infections and 91 deaths. It is still possible that a pandemic can be avoided. But that possibility is receding as each reservoir of disease creates the opportunities ideal for a new virus to mutate while it adjusts to survive in a new species.

Now, as Continental governments advocate stringent measures, British ministers are facing serious questions over whether they've done enough. Tony Blair could and should have given a single cabinet minister overall charge of the response, as urged by the WHO. Instead, the various departments are moving along different tracks. Donaldson and the Department of Health organised emergency planning for the health service fairly quickly, badgering ministers to order millions of doses of the antiviral drugs.

But Britain's farmers, who still wield huge influence over the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), did not want to know about a disease rampant in faraway countries which could damage their poultry industry. After foot-and-mouth, many beef farmers switched to poultry as a safer bet, and the prospect of taking extra "bio-security" measures against their free-range market filled them with horror. This is why every European country, apart from the UK and Spain, has sensibly ordered poultry indoors or confined their movement in some way. The government's belief that hens could be moved indoors once the disease arrives in Britain would not solve the problem.

At least as worrying is the reluctance of most of Whitehall to discuss how basic services will be maintained in the event of a pandemic. It is estimated that such pandemics last roughly 16 weeks, and the assessment of some business organisations is that about 50 per cent of the workforce would stay at home at any one point during that period, due to a mixture of infections, school closures and fear. Among the gravest challenges would be to ensure that energy, food supplies and transportation still functioned.

However, Defra has been characteristically tight-lipped about food security. Late last year, the British Retail Consortium admitted that it had had to demand a meeting with the department in order to discuss the issue of how food would reach the supermarkets during a crisis. One might have expected such discussions to have been initiated by the government.

"There may of course be a Plan A which Whitehall has worked out in huge detail, and which will come into effect as soon as we have a pandemic, but they are keeping everything close to their chest," says a senior executive in a major company. "What they need to realise is that it's just not possible for a company to prepare for this unless you have an idea of how the transport system would run, or whether the schools would still be open."

The Ministry of Defence has been equally unforthcoming. The army would play a crucial role in protecting supplies of drugs at surgeries, ensuring food supplies and maintaining public order, but when MoD representatives spoke at a recent bird flu conference, they demanded that the media be kept away. Such an approach is unlikely to instil confidence in a population that can receive hourly updates on the spread of H5N1, but is not able to find out how they, and the authorities, are supposed to respond.