Bird flu risk to public ‘negligible’

The risk to the public from the outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian bird flu in Suffolk is “negligible”, environment secretary David Miliband has insisted.

The slaughter of 159,000 turkeys at the Bernard Matthews farm in Suffolk is expected to finish today, and the bodies will be transported to Staffordshire to be destroyed.

It is the first case of the deadly strain of bird flu, which has killed more than 100 people worldwide, found in British birds, and it prompted a meeting of the cabinet emergency committee, Cobra, in Downing Street this morning.

Giving an update to MPs this afternoon, Mr Miliband reassured the public that the risk was very low, and said staff at the poultry farm were properly protected. He also stressed it was safe to continue eating meat and eggs, providing they were properly cooked.

And he told the House of Commons he was satisfied that the response to the outbreak had been “rapid, well-coordinated and appropriate”.

The government’s first contingency plan was introduced in 2004 and has been regularly updated. Today Mr Miliband said: “Those plans have proven their worth.”

However, the Conservatives expressed concern that ministers still had no idea where the bird flu came from. The virus is similar to the strain of H5N1 found in an outbreak of Hungary recently, and there is speculation it might have been brought over by wild birds.

“Thus far we support the government and its agencies.but above all we need an answer to the question – how exactly did this disease get here?” asked shadow environment secretary Peter Ainsworth.

Mr Miliband replied that it was a “very, very high priority indeed to get to the bottom of this” and said that although the most likely cause was a wild bird, his department was pursuing “all possible lines of inquiry”.

“We take this issue very seriously and we’re going to stamp it out,” he said.

The alarm was raised on Thursday by a private vet concerned at a high number of deaths in one of the 22 sheds on the Bernard Matthews turkey farm. The farm was shut down, preventing anyone or anything coming in and out, and tests were carried out.

When it was confirmed on Friday evening that it was the H5 strain, Mr Miliband said poultry farmers across the UK were alerted. When the H5N1 strain was identified, a three-kilometre protection zone and a ten-metre surveillance zone was set up.

Since then, this has been extended to a restricted zone of 2,090 square kilometres across east Suffolk and south-east Norfolk, and all fairs involving live birds have been cancelled across the UK. The slaughter of the Bernard Matthews birds began on Saturday.

Everyone working at the farm has been given personal protection clothing, the avian flu drug Tamiflu and a normal flu jab.