High pathogenicity H5N8 avian influenza has been circulating in Europe since the autumn. There have been nine confirmed cases in poultry in the UK and several findings in wild birds across England. Public Health England advises that the risk to public health from H5N8 is very low and the Food Standards Agency has said there is no food safety risk for UK consumers.
In response to the threat from H5N8 to poultry, my Department has taken robust precautionary action. This has included an indefinite ban on poultry gatherings, enhanced wild birds surveillance and an avian influenza prevention zone across England. The zone was put in place on 6 December and amongst other things requires the compulsory housing of poultry and captive birds or where this is not possible, their separation from wild birds.
Where H5N8 has been detected in poultry or captive birds, this has been dealt with effectively by the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and I am grateful for all involved in this considerable effort to control and stamp out this disease.
On 28 February, the avian influenza prevention zone will have been in place for 12 weeks. This is the maximum allowable period that poultry can be housed for disease control purposes and retain free range marketing status.
The risk of H5N8 in wild birds across the UK remains high. As a result, from 28 February, my Department will put in place a new avian influenza prevention zone. This will continue to require that all keepers of poultry and captive birds observe heightened biosecurity requirements regardless of their location. Subject to these measures being put in place, housing will no longer be required for the vast majority of keepers.
Within England, there are some areas that are at higher risk of H5N8 due to their proximity to substantial inland or coastal bodies of water where wild waterfowl collect. In these higher risk areas, which will cover around 25% of poultry premises, mandatory housing or fully netting outside areas will be required. This may temporarily result in the loss of free range status for keepers in these areas unless they apply netting of range, rather than housing.
The higher risk areas are based on expert advice on the latest veterinary and ornithological data and have been reviewed by leading experts.
I am very mindful of the impact that temporary loss of free range status will have on affected businesses. During this unprecedented period of high risk, I have taken this decision based on the best scientific and veterinary advice in order to control disease and protect our poultry industry. Effective disease control will always be our priority: disease outbreaks cause birds to suffer, damage businesses and cost the UK taxpayer millions. We do not anticipate any significant disruption to the supply of free range eggs after 28 February.
These measures will be put in place in the first instance until the end of April, but will be kept under constant review with the aim of lifting the targeted measures within higher risk areas as soon as risk levels allow it.