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Daelnet special: Who will cope with avian 'flu?

Monday 05 February 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has been writing about various food health crises for 20 years, crosses his fingers and hopes that, this time, the Government will prove capable of handling a critical food health hazard

DON'T PANIC. This was the message repeated over and over again this weekend by scientists wheeled about by Defra as the true threat of the avian 'flu outbreak in Suffolk began to sink in. For me, as I anxiously monitored radio, television and newspaper reports, such plaintive pleas made we want to run for the hills - except for the fact that I am already there.

We have been here so many times before, you see, and every time the Government, whether Tory of New Labour, has cocked it up. But this time, the threat is so sinister that we cannot afford to get it wrong for we are talking, not just about the potential deaths of millions of animals, but potentially the biggest threat to human life in almost a century.

david miliband defra secretary
David Miliband: can he sort it?

How can anyone who has studied these matters in depth, from BSE to foot and mouth, possibly have any confidence in the Defra and the Department of Health, the two ministries in charge of confronting such terrifying threats, after years of the most lamentable incompetence?

There is, in fact, one avenue for hope - of which more later - but just look at the so-called "food scares" I have covered in depth in the past two decades: salmonella in eggs, listeria in cheese and yoghurts, human BSE, foot and mouth and now H5N1 avian influenza.

All different diseases but their treatment had one thing in common: the Government and their ministries, namely the old Ministry of Agriculture before it was scrapped and replaced by Defra, and the Department of Health, tried, first, to cover them up and then, when people or animals began to die, urged people: Don't panic!

Only one minister admitted that anything was wrong: Edwina Currie confessed that salmonella was endemic in eggs. She was promptly fired, even though (as it transpired much later) she was the Prime Minister's mistress. John Gummer famously fed burgers to his daughter on TV whilst he knew fine well that cattle were dying of BSE in their thousands.

When foot and mouth broke out in Northumberland, New Labour - facing their first re-lection campaign - ordered that it should be covered up, as though no-one would notice cattle and sheep dying in the fields. It took two weeks - and possibly more, for the truth has never been published - before public action was taken and by then infected animals has spread right across the country via cattle mart sales.

These were tragedies in which malevolent nature was joined by a willing accomplice, the self-seeking politician and his or her highly paid spin doctors. But this time, with avian flu if it were to mutate into a human virus, could kill more people worldwide than the 60 million who died in the flu epidemic after World War 1.

And who do we have in charge of human health as this threat appears on the horizon? Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, who has allowed out hospitals to be overrun by killer viruses (we have the worst record on this than any nation in non-Mediterranean Europe) and who, just last year, gave our GPs a £30,000 a year rise whilst at the same time allowing them to give up weekend calls. What idiot pays people more to do less?

Defra, after years of total chaos, is now in the hands of a young politician who actually seems to be quite good at the job

Worse still, France has manufactured breathing masks for its entire population as an emergency measure should a human avian flu emerge. Britain has ordered supply for medical professionals like doctors, nurses and ambulance staff - but they will not be ready until Christmas.

As for Defra, there are dozens of conflicting reports about what happened at Bernard Matthews' turkey factory farm in Suffolk last week. What seems to be clear is that the disease was first noticed on Tuesday, Defra took its first action on Thursday evening, and a huge 800 square mile exclusion zone was set up … on Saturday.

Defra blame the company vets. The company says it could get no positive response from Defra because its officials "were in meetings." Wherever or not either claim is true I do not know - but does the idea of civil servants being in meetings seem totally fanciful?

So when Patricia Hewitt says "Don't panic" I feel like rushing out and filling my cellar with supplies for a long, long siege. But I do have one slender hope: Defra, after years of total chaos, is now in the hands of a young politician who actually seems to be quite good at the job.

David Miliband, who took over Defra from the disaster-prone Margaret Beckett, is being talked about as a future prime minister. He has already impressed some tough- minded farmers and landowners for the speed at which he has learned his brief. He will know full well this morning that, if he gets this crisis wrong, his political future is doomed. It is in all our interests that he gets it right.

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