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"Scrap Defra" call as bird flu spreads

[Monday 20 February 2006]

AS Government vets carry out bird flu tests on nine swans found dead in England - one of them near Thirsk, North Yorks - poultry farmers in France and Holland were ordered over the weekend to bring all their free-range birds indoors.

And this morning, one of Holland's leading virologists said on BBC radio that Britain should do the same - or at least start an emergency vaccination programme to prevent domestic poultry from contracting the disease from migrating wild birds.

The rural affairs department Defra has said that such moves are unnecessary at present - there have been no confirmed case in England as yet of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu which can kill people - and the National Union of Farmers says that such a move would be a "gross over-reaction."

However, many independent scientists and thousands of farmers are voicing growing concern about the similarities between the slowness of Defra reaction and the shambles caused by its predecessor, MAFF, at the outbreak of foot and mouth disease five years ago.

At the weekend, a group of scientists working for the Centre for Rural Economy based at Newcastle University called for Defra to be scrapped for it was failing the countryside by concentrating on politically correct issues like global warming and ignoring more bread and butter matters.

However, the Government points out that although bird flu has killed some 100 humans in South East Asia, they were people who lived in peasant villages in constant contact with poultry: no-one in the West has contracted the disease and the risk of it spread from migrating birds is minimal.

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