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Avian Influenza

Volume 588: debated on Monday 17 November 2014

The chief veterinary officer has confirmed a case of avian flu at a duck breeding farm in east Yorkshire. We have taken immediate and robust action to control this outbreak and to prevent any potential spread of infection. My Department, which is responsible for animal and plant health, is working closely with Public Health England. which is responsible for human health, and the Food Standards Agency, which is responsible for food safety.

The Animal and Plant Health Agency laboratory at Weybridge—an internationally recognised avian influenza reference laboratory—has analysed samples from the farm and identified the presence of highly pathogenic H5 avian flu. They have ruled out H5N1, the virus that can cause severe disease in people who are infected through close contact with infected birds. Further tests are being run to identify the exact strain of the disease. Importantly, the chief medical officer and Public Health England have confirmed that the risk to public health is very low.

It is important to note that this disease is highly pathogenic for birds, but the Food Standards Agency has advised that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk. Protecting animal health is one of the top priorities for my Department and we have extensive and rigorous processes to identify and tackle disease outbreaks. As part of this approach I chair a monthly biosecurity meeting and have reinforced the importance of monitoring and planning for likely risk.

We have tried and tested procedures for dealing with such outbreaks and our experts immediately responded when suspicions of disease emerged. I would like to take a moment to update the House on the sequence of events over recent days and the steps we are taking. A possible case of a notifiable disease on the farm was reported by a private vet on the morning of Friday 14 November. A Government vet visited the premises that day and submitted samples to the Weybridge laboratory, and the premises were immediately placed under restriction.

A series of tests was undertaken during the weekend and testing confirmed the presence of notifiable H5 avian flu on Saturday evening. Further tests ruled out H5N1. As the test results were confirmed, the chief veterinary officer, Nigel Gibbens, called an amber emergency meeting to assess the situation, and as a result declared a disease outbreak. At that point the national disease control centre was established and the full operational response was initiated, including informing the public and notifying key industry bodies.

At the same time a 10 km restriction zone was imposed around the farm. This zone bans movements of all unlicensed poultry and products within the area. Bird gatherings such as shows and exhibitions are banned and game birds cannot be released. The 6,000 ducks on the farm where the disease has been identified are to be culled. Investigations are ongoing to discover the origin of the outbreak, including whether it is linked to recent cases found in the Netherlands and Germany. This is detailed work to ensure we have identified all possible sources of the outbreak. It is essential that anyone keeping poultry practises good biosecurity, is vigilant for any signs of disease and seeks prompt advice from their vet.

We are never complacent about such an important issue, and we have a strong track record of controlling and eliminating outbreaks of avian flu in the UK. We are working closely with operational partners, devolved Administration colleagues and the industry to deal effectively with this outbreak. I will keep the House updated on further developments. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of her statement and, in particular, for the briefing I received from her officials this morning. She is right to bring the matter to the House at the earliest opportunity, and I commend her for doing so.

Avian flu is a serious contagious viral disease in animals with a potential for some strains to infect humans, with all the health implications of that. Fortunately, human infection is rare, and, thankfully, the Government have already confirmed that the strain of avian flu discovered in ducks on Nafferton farm in Yorkshire is not H5N1, which is one of the strains that impacts humans, though it is believed to be an H5 strain.

When is it likely that the Department will be able to confirm definitively what strain we are dealing with? The Secretary of State will know that outbreaks of H5N8 have been confirmed in Germany and Holland during the past two weeks. There may be some connection between these outbreaks, so what steps is she taking to ensure full co-operation between the veterinary authorities dealing with the outbreaks there, particularly if, in due course, it is confirmed that the outbreak she is dealing with is of the same serotype?

I understand that the authorities in the Netherlands have introduced a three-day nationwide ban on the transportation of poultry and eggs, yet, as I understand it from what the Secretary of State said, even in the 10 km restriction zone in place around the affected farm in Yorkshire, the measure she has announced bans movement of unlicensed poultry and products. Is she therefore allowing the movement of licensed poultry and poultry products? Will she give us a bit more information about what is and is not allowed within the zone? How sure is she that any potentially infected poultry has not been, and will not be, moved out of the zone prior to inspections, and that it will not enter the human food chain? What steps has she taken to ensure that there is no human exposure to the virus on Nafferton farm itself, either among farm staff or among the staff being sent to deal with the outbreak?

The Secretary of State does not yet quite know what the source of the outbreak is. Would not this information impact on what measures ought to be taken to contain it, and should she not therefore operate on the precautionary principle until she is clear what the strain is? There is clearly a possibility that the source is wild birds—a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve is nearby. What steps is she taking to initiate sampling of wild bird populations? What is she doing to ensure that landowners and members of the public watch out for signs of the disease in such populations?

The Secretary of State said that the birds on the farm are to be culled, but this has not happened yet. When is it to be done? For how long does she expect the restrictions she has announced to be in place if the outbreak is confined to just one farm? What is she doing to get information out to members of the public who keep a few chickens or ducks within the affected areas?

At this important time for the industry, and for consumers, what is her advice to consumers considering ordering their Christmas birds, whether ducks, geese or turkeys? We have heard that the FSA has been clear about this, but what is the Secretary of State’s advice? Does she expect trade impacts on exports to the European Union and around the world? What steps is her Department taking to help industry to deal with any concerns? We know from recent history that long and complex supply chains have the ability to accelerate the spread of food problems across international borders before being identified and tackled, so what assurance can she give to UK consumers that contaminated poultry and poultry products did not enter the European supply chain before this latest outbreak was identified?

Finally, can the Secretary of State assure us that she has all the necessary resources to prevent the spread of this disease, including the surveillance of wild birds and the testing, monitoring and culling of infected birds, and to enable any necessary communication with the industry and the wider public?

I thank the hon. Lady for her response. I am sure she will agree that very swift action has already been taken from the time of the original notification on Friday. We have already seen the testing taking place and the imposition of the restriction zone within which no movements are allowed.

On the hon. Lady’s specific question, people will be able to do that only if they are issued with a specific licence, and that will follow testing. We have set up a national control centre to deal with this disease. A local operation will be run out of Beverley to make sure that appropriate resources are put in place for surveillance in the local area.

We are taking this extremely seriously. One of my priorities as Secretary of State is to make sure that we are protected from animal and plant disease. One of the things we have done since 2010 is to protect the number of veterinary staff within our organisations to make sure that we have the resources to deal with disease outbreaks such as this. We have a good record, but we cannot be complacent. That is why earlier this year the Government released a new strategy on dealing with biosecurity risks and notifiable diseases.

The hon. Lady asked a number of questions. First, let us be clear that the Food Standards Agency has said that this does not pose a risk to food safety for UK consumers. That is a very important point. The chicken and turkey that people eat continue to be safe. This is a live animal disease. It is very important that we take steps to deal with it as soon as we are able, and that is what we have done. It poses a risk to the bird population, but it is an animal disease, not a human disease. I want to make that point very clearly.

The hon. Lady asked about protection for people working in farms in the area. As regards the risk to human health, we have put in place protections for the people on the farm that has been affected, and other local farms also have those protections in place. However, as I have said, the risk to human health is very low. That view has been supported not just by Public Health England but by the chief medical officer.

We are working with our European counterparts. Our organisation, APHA—the Animal and Plant Health Agency—is closely co-operating with those in the Netherlands and Germany to make sure that we are fully updated on what is happening.

We are at the early stages of examining what strain this is. We have ruled out H5N1 but we are looking closely at what strain it is. That is the work of the chief veterinary officer and we will know more in the coming days. Detailed work needs to be done so we are continuing to do that.

We have seen a good co-ordinated effort from all kinds of organisations, including the industry, the National Farmers Union, the police and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and we need to keep that up to make sure we stamp out this disease. All the experience of animal disease shows that it is important to take early and swift action and make sure it is stamped out.

I am sure the whole House is grateful to the Minister for making this statement today. Will she confirm that resources will not be an issue, and that whatever needs to be done will be done to eradicate this outbreak? Does she agree that in due course there should be a review of what has happened so that lessons can be learned? Will she look at the question of compensation for those whose businesses have been adversely affected? For the present, will she confirm that no holidaymaker intending to come to the East Riding need change their plans, and that east Yorkshire remains open for business?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that east Yorkshire is most definitely open for business. The restrictions that we have put in place are specifically on the poultry industry. Compensation will be paid to farmers. We will do that in a robust fashion that is properly audited, learning lessons from previous disease outbreaks. My right hon. Friend is right that it is important that we see the value to the wider £210 billion rural economy. Food and farming are important, which is why we are dealing with this disease outbreak as quickly and as effectively as possible, but we must also see the wider benefits to the rural economy.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. She referred to work with operational partners and devolved Administrations. Will she outline the nature of those discussions with devolved Administrations, particularly the Northern Ireland Executive, so that the local poultry industry in Northern Ireland can be protected and public health safeguarded?

I can assure the hon. Lady that we had a meeting today, which was part of our national disease control meetings, in which the Northern Ireland Executive were involved, as were the relevant authorities from Scotland and Wales. It is very important that we communicate properly with the devolved Administrations, and that is what we are doing, so they are fully involved in all our operations.

Many of my constituents work in egg production and poultry. Earlier today I was contacted by Elliott Eggs of Bewholme just outside the exclusion zone, which is already struggling to meet the supply demands of its supermarket customers. How will my right hon. Friend strike the balance between effective eradication of the problem and continued production, particularly in this festive season?

As my hon. Friend points out, the poultry and egg industry is a vital part of our food and farming sector, which contributes £100 billion to the economy. My answer to him is that the best way for us to do that is to deal with this as swiftly as possible and make sure that we eradicate the disease. That is why we have taken swift action. As I mentioned, the disease was notified to us on Friday. On that day Government vets visited the farm and an immediate restriction was placed on the farm. As soon as the analysis came back from the tests, the chief veterinary officer placed a restriction on a 10 km zone, so we are taking swift action to deal with the problem as soon as possible. All the previous disease outbreaks have shown that rapid, concerted, robust action needs to be taken.

The Secretary of State has said that the risk to public health is very low, but what discussions has she had with the Secretary of State for Health regarding the avian flu outbreak and this year’s winter flu jab campaign?

The chief veterinary officer and the chief medical officer have been working together very closely since the disease was identified. The chief medical officer and Public Health England have said that, based on the evidence they have received from the tests, there is a very low risk to public health. We will continue to work with those organisations.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the swift, proportionate and comprehensive action she has taken, but warn again that the resilience and capacity of our animal health precautions must be protected against future depredation by the Treasury. Will my right hon. Friend look again at how she can get the message across to the backyard poultry keepers, who are the most difficult to reach—they do not read the trade newspapers or have veterinary supervision at all times—about the symptoms they should be looking for in their birds so that they can report them?

First, I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of animal and plant health. That is one of my key priorities as Secretary of State. As I have said, we have protected the number of vets in our organisation, despite the fact that we have had to make savings across the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since 2010. As soon as we imposed the restriction zone, we put out the message in the media, as well as through many organisations such as the National Farmers Union and veterinary organisations. We want to get the message across to those members of the public who keep poultry that biosecurity measures are very important and that if they have any concerns they should speak to their vet.

The Corby and east Northamptonshire food industry and farming industry, which is very significant, will be very concerned about the effects of this announcement on their already fragile industries, in the wake of events in recent years. On resources, the best thing to do is to focus tightly on the farm in question, as the Secretary of State has said. On the transportation of the carcases—she indicated that that will happen in 10 days’ time—will real precautions be taken regarding escorts and ensuring that the transportation is safe?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are taking a very close interest in what is happening in the local area. That is why we have put in place an operating base in Beverley, very close to the local area, so that we can make sure that we deal with any issues there. The hon. Gentleman also makes a good point about the transportation of any culled ducks. We will make sure that they are properly protected so that we can dispose of them safely.

Bearing in mind that Yorkshire is one of the largest and most intensive poultry producers, may I commend my right hon. Friend, the veterinary service and, indeed, the responsible producers on the action they have taken? Mindful of the fact that the chief veterinary officer is on record as saying that the British case may be linked to European outbreaks or, alternatively, that it may be found in migratory birds, will the Secretary of State make it a top priority of all the services to find out the source of the infection? Will she also send out a clear message that British poultry is still safe to eat after the bird has been cooked and that, on biosecurity and those trying to cover the story, it is absolutely essential that those trying to contain this very infectious disease are given the right of access?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that poultry is safe to eat. The Food Standards Agency has confirmed that avian flu does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers. We are very clear about that message. My hon. Friend is also right to say that Yorkshire is a key county for food production. I recently visited Yorkshire to see many of the different aspects of food production there. We will make sure that people get the message about biosecurity so that we can ensure that proper protection is in place. Swift action is the most important aspect.

The most immediate thing that we are focusing on—bear in mind that we were initially notified about the issue on Friday—is trying to nip the disease in the bud to make sure that it has the minimum possible impact. That is why it is important to take very urgent action.

From what the Secretary of State says, the responses of the farmer, the vet and the agencies were exemplary in both their swiftness and decisiveness. The suggestion that this outbreak has come from wild bird infection reminds us that east Yorkshire is part of a migratory network, as is much of the rest of the United Kingdom. What will she do to ensure that there is clear surveillance of areas subject to bird migration so that this cannot happen again?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is one of the possibilities that the chief veterinary officer is exploring. He is meeting the ornithological expert panel to look specifically at the migratory patterns of wild birds, which might be one of the factors. It is still early days, and we do not fully know the cause. His job is to investigate that, and he is working very hard on it.

Industry support and vigilance will be key to any success in implementing the restrictions, so what discussions is the Secretary of State’s Department having with trade bodies such as the NFU, the British Egg Industry Council or the British Poultry Council?

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who has responsibility for farming, has spoken to the British Poultry Council and the British Egg Industry Council, and I have spoken to the NFU. Those organisations are represented in our national disease control centre to ensure full industry inclusion in what we are doing and to ensure we can get our messages across properly.

We are entering a very important time of the year for the poultry industry. What will the Secretary of State continue to do with her DEFRA colleagues to get out the strong message that although we have to tackle the outbreak head-on, poultry and eggs are still perfectly safe to eat? We still have the best animal welfare in this country, and such strong animal welfare will help us in tackling this disease.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this outbreak does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers. The Food Standards Agency has been absolutely clear about that. We have very high welfare standards in this country, and we have a successful, competitive poultry industry. We are being very open and taking firm and decisive action so that we can stamp the disease out in the early stages.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and DEFRA on maintaining the reference laboratory at Weybridge, which meant that she could very rapidly rule out the possibility that the H5N1 strain was responsible. What role will Weybridge continue to play in a worldwide observatory on this important disease? Knowing where each strain is active may help in fighting the disease in future.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that our facilities at Weybridge are world class. We have world-class experts on avian influenza, which is very important in being able to deal with this disease. They are discussing the outbreak with their counterparts in other countries, because there have been outbreaks elsewhere. At this stage, we do not know what the connection is with the outbreak in east Yorkshire. He is absolutely right that that vital facility is an important part of our armoury in dealing with animal disease.

The vet who turned up to the farm on Friday was clearly on the ball, and dealt with this outbreak efficiently and quickly. What more can we and the Department do to help the veterinary profession to ensure that everyone who goes out to farms is looking out for the symptoms of this disease?

The chief veterinary officer has been very active in working with the veterinary profession and the British Veterinary Association to make sure that we get such messages across. A lot of information is available on our website for people to access. Getting the message across is very important, and vets have a very important role to play.

Calder Valley has many smallholdings, as the Secretary of State knows. What advice would she give to smallholders about who would be the first point of contact if they suspect a problem in the coming weeks?

My hon. Friend is right: there are many smallholders, not just in Calder Valley but right across the country, and if people have concerns or suspicions, they should speak to their vet. That is the best course of action.

While public health is rightly uppermost in our minds at the moment, this is, as my right hon. Friend has said, a live poultry disease. Live poultry exports are worth a significant proportion of the £3.3 billion that poultry generates for UK GDP. Has she made any further progress in including the concept of compartmentalisation and export health certificates, and negotiated with our export markets to protect this valuable industry?

The most important thing we can do to protect exports is ensure that we deal with the disease as swiftly and robustly as possible. That is what will help protect our export markets, which, as my hon. Friend rightly says, are very important—indeed, we are looking to expand them.

May I also congratulate the Secretary of State and her team on taking swift and decisive action in what is potentially a difficult situation? This is the busiest season, and in Chesham and Amersham there are some marvellous Aylesbury duck breeders who also produce excellent turkeys for the Christmas season. Can the Secretary of State assure me that she will put out regular bulletins and information—perhaps even send them to Members who have raised questions in the House—so that we can get those across to our constituents? Will she do absolutely everything to maintain consumer confidence at this critical time for many businesses across the country?

We are working closely with the Department of Health, which is represented in the Chamber this afternoon, as well as with the Food Standards Agency and Public Health England, to get the message across to consumers that there is no food safety risk to British poultry. My right hon. Friend is right to say that this industry is important. That is why it is important to be open about the disease and the way we are dealing with it, and to take swift, effective action.

Given the proximity of the wild bird sanctuary to the area of contamination, does the Secretary of State feel that the exclusion zone of six miles is enough?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question about the exclusion zone. Earlier this year our Department set out a biosecurity strategy on notifiable diseases, and the 10 km exclusion zone was deemed to be a reasonable level to deliver the right amount of protection. The chief veterinary officer will be carrying out further work and investigating how the disease emerged, and following that work he will continue to work on our policy.

Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), may I ask the Secretary of State whether local birds such as robins, sparrows, thrushes and blackbirds could carry avian flu away from the area?

The chief veterinary officer has been clear that we do not know the precise causes of the disease and where it has emerged from, and we will be undertaking that work over the coming weeks.

I understand from the statement that this case was found on a duck breeding farm. Do we know whether it was a duck or ducks that were affected, as opposed to some other form of poultry? As the Secretary of State addresses the House, is it the case that no recorded cases of avian flu in either a chicken or a turkey have been presented to her?

My understanding and the advice I have received from the chief veterinary officer is that only ducks were affected in this case.