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Avian Influenza

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s response to the current avian influenza outbreaks. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ avian influenza disease control measures aim to minimise the economic burden of the outbreak on the food, farming and tourism industries and on the wider economy while protecting public health. However, we recognise that the industry is under serious pressure. The UK Health Security Agency advises that the risk to public health from H5N1 remains very low, and the Food Standards Agency has said that there is no food safety risk for UK consumers. The strain is the European strain of H5N1.

Outbreaks of avian influenza in both kept and wild birds continue to occur on an unprecedented scale, with cases continuing to be confirmed into year two of the outbreak for the first time. October has seen a massive escalation in the number of cases confirmed, with 91 cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza confirmed in poultry and captive birds: 82 cases in England, four in Scotland, four in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. This compares with a total of 158 cases in the year between October 2021 and 30 September 2022 and with 26 cases in the winter of 2020-2021.

We recognise the significant financial pressure that an outbreak of avian influenza can have on producers. Current rules are designed to encourage good biosecurity standards, and this remains a top priority. On Wednesday 26 October, to help producers to deal with the impacts of the UK’s worst ever avian influenza outbreak, DEFRA confirmed changes to the avian influenza compensation scheme, which will be implemented in addition to a relaxation of rules for the sale of previously frozen seasonal poultry products. Farmers who breed turkeys, geese, ducks or capons for their meat will have the option to slaughter their flocks early and freeze products, which can then be defrosted and sold to consumers between 28 November and 31 December 2022. While we produce over 11 million turkeys in the UK every year and there is no immediate threat to the food supply chain as a result of current outbreak, this measure will help to mitigate any potential risks to the Christmas food supplies.

Work with the sector has shown that there has been too much uncertainty in the past about the entitlement to compensation in the event of a confirmed case of avian influenza outbreak, where healthy birds are culled to help disease control. We are therefore altering the operation of the existing compensation scheme for avian influenza to give earlier certainty about the entitlement to compensation. This will be linked to decisions taken at the start of planned culling, rather than at the end. It will also allow us to reflect the particular impact of this unprecedented outbreak. Earlier clarity about compensation should also lead to swifter payments to help with cash-flow pressures. We will be applying this approach from 1 October 2022.

Biosecurity is the essential defence against avian influenza, but despite it being a legal requirement in the avian influenza prevention zone in force and a baseline for industry assurance schemes, veterinary investigations at infected premises continue to reveal unacceptable lapses in biosecurity. It is essential that the industry play its part in helping to prevent further outbreaks. Mandatory housing measures for all poultry and captive birds are to be introduced to all areas of England from one minute past midnight on the morning of Monday 7 November, following a decision by the United Kingdom’s chief veterinary officer. The housing measures legally require all bird keepers to keep their birds housed and to follow stringent biosecurity measures to help to protect their flocks from the disease, regardless of type or size.

Finally, any future decisions on disease control measures, including the use of vaccination, will be based on the latest scientific, ornithological and veterinary advice. I urge all bird keepers, from those keeping large commercial flocks to those with one or two birds in the back garden, to adopt the best practice biosecurity advice measures required in the avian influenza prevention zone. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement, which is welcome but should have been made weeks ago, as the devastating impact on the wild bird population has been known for months and the impact on producers has been getting worse and worse week by week. Yesterday, the Government finally announced that a full bird housing order would come into effect from Monday 7 November. That is coming too late, with over 3 million birds having been culled already, so why did it take so long? And because birds do not recognise borders, can the Minister tell us about discussions with the devolved Governments on introducing similar restrictions? With the imminent return of more migratory birds, we could rapidly see this spreading further across the four nations.

On the compensation scheme, can the Minister tell us how much it is costing? He mentioned the uncertainty about entitlement. There may be uncertainty in his Department, but the real complaint has been about the inability of the Animal and Plant Health Agency to move quickly enough when incidents are reported, and that is his Department’s responsibility. We know what the problem is: the shortage of vets and the lack of catchers and cullers. The vets went back to Spain and Portugal, but his Department had no plan or capacity to deal with a new crisis, and now we have one. Can the Minister tell us what the vacancy rates are at the APHA? Just how short is the agency? And if everyone there is working on avian flu, as they need to be, what effect is that having on issuing the dreaded export certificates that all our exporters now need?

We are told that the outbreak has spread at a much faster pace this year than previously, with the chief vet telling parliamentarians this morning that, in terms of the number of cases, we are six weeks ahead of where we were this time last year. What impact will this have on our food supplies? We know that the disease affects turkeys and geese much more severely. The Minister says that there is no immediate threat, but it is reported that we already have a 20% supply issue with free-range turkeys. Is he confident that we will have enough turkeys for Christmas?

The Minister is right to say that biosecurity is critical for preventing the spread, and producers must take the responsibility, but what support are the Government offering to farmers to help to implement effective biosecurity measures and what checking is being done to ensure that such measures are at the right standards? Looking to the future, what is he doing to give seasonal producers the confidence to restock next year? Finally, what of vaccines? Other countries are moving quickly. What is the Minister doing to ensure that trade issues are resolved and that every effort is being made to get a vaccine in place? This is a serious situation, and the Government have been slow to react and slow to report to this House. They need to do better.

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman has taken that approach and wants to make this a party political issue. Interestingly, Wales, where the Labour party is in control, has not moved to do this at this stage. We are announcing before the Welsh Administration. We are actually working quite closely with the devolved Administrations. We have taken this decision now because we are following the most up-to-date science and veterinary advice. We are led by the science and by our veterinary advisers. It is fair to say that the housing order has a twofold impact on the spread of avian influenza, whereas biosecurity can have a 44-fold impact on the spread, which is why our focus has been completely on biosecurity. As I say, we continue to talk to our colleagues in the devolved Administrations. We have constructive conversations and we are working closely with them.

It is clear that there is capacity within the DEFRA vets service to deal with this challenge. The vets are on site and on farms and they are dealing with it. When it comes to food supplies, we are confident that our food supply networks are enough to ensure that we have turkeys for Christmas. We have the most robust supply chains available to us and there should not be a problem as long as we continue to keep the strictest biosecurity.

The hon. Gentleman’s final comment was about vaccines. The advice I have been given is that the current vaccines are not as effective against the current strain of European bird flu as we would have hoped. Vaccines are available for birds kept in zoos that do not enter the food chain but, because of trade deals, there is a challenge with vaccinated birds entering the food chain. We are having conversations and working as closely as possible with our colleagues in Europe, who face the same challenges, to find a way forward.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his update on this incredibly concerning situation. My thoughts go out to people on the frontline on farms, who are in among their birds. It is incredibly distressing and devastating for all involved in tending or looking after birds and animals that are dying or need to be culled as part of the control process. We saw that with foot and mouth, and we are now seeing it with avian flu.

I thank the vets and officials involved in disease surveillance and control during this incredibly stressful time. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this confirms that the APHA needs to be adequately staffed and resourced to protect animal health and welfare and biosecurity, and that we must refurbish and fund its headquarters down in Weybridge as a priority?

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area. The APHA has the resources to deal with this enormous challenge, but we recognise the pressure it is under. We will make sure it is well resourced to go about its business.

I thank the Minister for his helpful update and for giving me early sight of his statement.

This outbreak is serious and potentially ruinous for those who depend on the poultry trade, or whose livelihood depends on the keeping of birds. All summer in Scotland, we have seen the impact of this episode of bird flu on our iconic bird colonies in places such as East Lothian, Galloway and St Kilda, with distressing scenes of these beautiful birds washing up on so many of our beaches.

In response to this emerging issue, the chief veterinary officer in Scotland joined her colleagues across the UK in declaring an avian influenza prevention zone. As the Minister said, the risk to the public is very low, and in Scotland we have had only four recorded cases, but I am sure he agrees that the situation must be kept under constant review.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement on the changes to the compensation scheme, and the industry will welcome that it allows for swifter payments in the run-up to Christmas. The Scottish chief veterinary officer has said that the housing of birds should not be seen as a silver bullet, and the Minister will be aware that we are not following the example of England on the mandatory housing of birds at this stage. Does he agree that the housing of birds is not a silver bullet? What further measures can be put in place, short of the housing of birds?

The Minister talked about his engagement with the Scottish Government, and perhaps he could tell us more. How regular are those meetings, and what has been the focus of conversation? We in Scotland will do everything possible to mitigate the risk and to ensure that we get reliable data so that everything we do is evidence-led.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for the co-operation of the Scottish Government. We work very closely at official level and at chief veterinary officer level to ensure that we are working in tandem to mitigate the risks. As he identified, there is no risk to the public. Of course that continues to be monitored, but we do not foresee there being a risk to public health. He also spoke about the tragedy happening within our wild bird population. We are seeing devastating losses of many wild birds, and we hope their stocks will recover once we get through this terrible outbreak.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. However, the compensation arrangements he outlined will do very little to help small producers such as KellyBronze in my constituency, which lost 9,800 turkeys from a flock of 10,000 in the space of a weekend, before the vet even arrived. Will he look to pay compensation from the date of notification, if the flock proves to be positive, as is the case for other species suffering from, for instance, foot and mouth disease? Will he confirm now that “freeze and thaw” will be available on the same basis next autumn, to give farmers the confidence to invest in birds for Christmas 2023?

I, too, have met my right hon. Friend’s constituent Paul Kelly, who made representations to me on behalf of KellyBronze. We have moved the start of compensation to as early as legally possible without the introduction of primary legislation. We are seeking to assist farmers as much as we can when they are caught out by this terrible disease. “Biosecurity, biosecurity, biosecurity” is the message I want to get across. It is very difficult, as it takes only one mistake—one quick visit to a unit with infected faeces on our boots—to devastate a whole flock.

I recently held a farmers forum in Lancaster and Fleetwood, and it is fair to say that the farmers in my community are deeply concerned about avian flu, but they are also concerned about the shortage of vets. Is the Minister confident that his Department has access to enough vets to contain the avian flu outbreak?

We have full confidence that we have enough vets to deal with this outbreak. Those vets are working long hours with great dedication, but I hear the hon. Lady’s comments about the concerns of poultry keepers and farmers up and down the country. We should not underestimate the mental health impact on farmers when they lose their livelihood and their flocks. It puts them under huge pressure.

I welcome the improvements to the compensation arrangements. I am aware that the National Farmers Union’s poultry board visited the Department last week to try to impress upon my right hon. Friend and his officials that paying compensation to farmers who have lost birds to culling but not to farmers whose birds have died from avian flu has made it very difficult to provide adequate compensation for poultry farmers whose livelihoods have been devastated by the impact of this disease, many of whom are in my south Shropshire constituency. I urge him to say whatever else he can about compensation applying to birds that have already died, prior to notification by vets.

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend comment on flexibility on the labelling of free-range eggs? The housing requirements for layers need some flexibility to allow free-range certificated flocks to continue.

Finally, the vaccine development is welcome. Will my right hon. Friend bring the same urgency to bear on avian flu vaccines as is applied to human covid vaccines? Will he engage with retailers in this country as soon as possible to ensure that they are willing to supply vaccinated meat?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his three questions. First, we have moved the date for the compensation scheme to as early as legally possible, to try to assist farmers with the challenges they face. He mentioned the labelling of free-range eggs. The law currently allows 16 weeks from the second a bird is housed, before eggs may no longer be called free-range. We have a while before the end of that 16-week period, when eggs would have to be labelled as barn-reared. That can be done with a simple label to say the eggs are barn-reared, rather than free-range.

As with covid, vaccination will be the route out of this problem, but we need our best scientists to concentrate on developing an effective vaccine. We need to work with our colleagues across the European Union so that birds and products exported for food will be accepted into their marketplace, as well as keeping conversations open with retailers to ensure they are also happy.

Twenty-one years on from foot and mouth disease devastating our communities in Cumbria, we are especially sensitive to not only the animal welfare consequences of outbreaks of animal diseases such as avian flu, but the crushing impact on people, livelihoods and the wider community. Will the Minister say more about the support he will be giving—compensation and other support—to poultry farmers directly affected and to those who will be indirectly affected by this hammering of their business, which puts their businesses at risk? Given that the Department has delayed imposing mandatory housing until next week, what evidence is there that this window could not now trigger panicked and unsafe practices, creating greater infection and increased misery for communities such as mine?

Clearly, the housing order came in following the best scientific and veterinary advice that we have, but I cannot reiterate enough the impact that improved biosecurity has on those units over a housing order. I recognise the impact that foot and mouth disease had in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the country and the mental scars it leaves on livestock holders. We have brought forward the compensation scheme so that cash flow is assisted. In bringing forward the moment at which the compensation scheme kicks in, we have also brought forward the moment at which the compensation is received in the bank account of the affected farmer. However, we cannot pay compensation for consequential losses further down the track. As a society, we will have to monitor and support those whose mental health is affected and address the impact that has on many, many families up and down the country.

It feels as though Norfolk is at the epicentre of this bird flu epidemic. In parts of my constituency, on the Norfolk broads, we have multiple reports of wild birds, including many swans, dying on our rivers and lying in the water. The Environment Agency is struggling to cope and there appears to be little consideration for the wild bird deaths. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that trained wildlife volunteers and rescue charities are given the necessary and special permissions to help with this emergency and are given special legal clearance to assist with the clear-up operation?

My hon. Friend is right to identify that Norfolk, north Essex and Suffolk are at the epicentre of this and have been under a housing order for some time. Obviously, he has made representations to me in private, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), who is in her place. There are some challenges in identifying where the disease is spreading, and members of the public can certainly help by reporting sightings of dead birds, to make sure that we are tracking where the disease is spreading.

As the Minister acknowledged, this is a deeply concerning for poultry farmers, and that concern is felt right across Yorkshire, as I know it is right across the country, not least because of the proximity to the crucial Christmas period, as he said. I wish to ask him about testing, because he will know that entire flocks can die in the time between reporting a suspected case and testing. Is any additional resource required to be put in place in order to enable a more rapid testing process?

Currently, we feel as though we have enough resource and are able to get on to farms quickly enough to identify the disease where possible, and that is the moment when compensation begins. As the hon. Gentleman has identified, rapid diagnosis and quick action are required, and at this moment we feel as though we have the resources to deliver that service.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Although, as he has stated, the risk to humans from avian flu thankfully remains low, we know from recent experience that clear public information will be key to minimising the spread of the virus and keeping our constituents safe. Using the lessons learnt from covid, and indeed from previous foot and mouth outbreaks, what steps is he taking to ensure that the public know what to do if they come across sick or dead birds as they go about their everyday lives?

My hon. Friend’s experience during the covid pandemic is extensive and valuable to us. My advice to members of the public is not to interfere with those dead birds, not to pick them up and not to move them, but to report them to their local authority if they see them dying on the roadside.

I thank the Minister for his response. In my constituency of Strangford, in Northern Ireland, I am aware of two confirmed outbreaks of avian flu, one in Ballywalter, 4 miles from where we live, and one in Kircubbin, 3 miles south of where we live. I am also aware of an avian influenza outbreak in Castle Espie, which is a wildlife refuge only 4 or 5 miles across Strangford Lough from where we are. A lot of migrating wild fowl—brent geese, wigeon, teal and mallard—are coming in, so clearly the possibility of an avian influenza outbreak not only in my area but across all of Northern Ireland is real. What can be done from a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland perspective, and also with the Republic of Ireland? This thing is so big that we can only deal with it together. Perhaps the initiative to make that happen across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic is one that you might want to push, Minister.

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that this is not an England-only problem; it is an international challenge and we need to co-operate and work with our international colleagues. Later this week, I will be going to the OECD, where I will be meeting international farming Ministers to discuss this and many other challenges that we face. He is right to identify the need for international co-operation required to solve this terrible challenge.

I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend, particularly on the measures relating to compensation earlier in the process, which will be most welcome, not least because, as he will be aware, one recent outbreak of avian flu in Scotland has been in my constituency in recent days. The shadow Minister rightly says that the disease knows no borders, so may I ask the Minister what discussions he has had in recent days with the Scottish Government on this matter? Does he agree with Robert Thompson, the chairman of the NFU Scotland poultry working group, that the same housing order measure should be implemented in Scotland? Does the Minister also agree with his statement that, although the biosecurity hygiene measures do exist in Scotland, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), the main risk is from the wild bird population to those flocks that are still outside?

One big challenge we face is that there has not been a break in the disease; traditionally, over the summer period the disease has “gone away” and disappeared. Unfortunately, the levels of infection have continued over the summer period and wild bird populations now heading towards the UK for the winter, to warmer areas such as Scotland from the north pole, are bringing that disease with them. There are not many places in the country that see Scotland as warm, but if you live in the north pole I suppose it is. Our level of co-operation with the devolved Administrations is exemplary. This is one area in which there is no political axe to grind, and the level of co-operation and engagement across the whole of the UK is exemplary.

The Minister said in his reply to the shadow Minister that there was close co-ordination with the devolved Administration, and he has made that point repeatedly during the debate. However, the Rural Affairs Minister said in the Senedd last week when answering questions that she had had no contact with the previous Secretary of State and had written only to the new one. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that the previous Secretary of State was not in post for particularly long. Will the Minister ensure that that co-ordination is happening not just at official level but at ministerial level?

That is a good question, and I make the commitment to the hon. Gentleman now that my door is open to colleagues from across the UK and the devolved Administrations to have those conversations. There are a lot of conversations taking place at official level and certainly the chief veterinary officers meet regularly.

We have already had avian flu in the north of Newcastle-under-Lyme, following an outbreak in Kidsgrove last month. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and what he is doing, given the increasing numbers, and the compensation scheme he has set out today, but to reassure consumers will he also set out what the UK Health Security Agency has said about the risk to public health and what the UK Food Standards Agency has said about poultry products, including eggs, and whether they remain safe to eat?

I can be absolutely categorical: there is absolutely no identified risk to human health. That continues to be monitored. We have the highest levels of food safety available to us. The Food Standards Agency is engaged in the process and has given us every assurance that there is no impact on human health at all.

I will not respond to the Minister’s disgraceful attack on Scotland’s mild and gentle climate. Surely though, the difference between avian flu and foot and mouth and other diseases of that sort is that avian flu is rife in the wild bird population? It is absolutely heartbreaking to walk on the beaches of the Northern Isles at the moment and see the number of dead birds being washed up all the time. The RSPB told me last week that some species, such as the great skua—perhaps not the most sympathetic species—could be threatened as a consequence. What more than biosecurity can we do to ensure that the link between the wild and domestic bird populations is broken?

The truth is that it is very difficult. Biosecurity is the best tool available to us, but as the right hon. Gentleman says, the disease continues to spread in wild bird populations. To a certain extent, we have to hope that nature finds a way of resolving this on its own and that birds with immunity to the virus are able to breed with other immune birds and so build up the natural immunity that can overcome this terrible virus.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for the actions his Department has already taken. Sadly, Blackpool has been affected by avian flu—40% of the swan population in Stanley Park died last winter and a high number of cases was reported recently among seabirds. Although I understand that the risk to the general public remains very low, what steps is his Department taking to raise awareness of this issue, and what steps should members of the public take to report suspected cases?

As I said earlier, it is important that members of the public do not interfere with dead birds, as they could inadvertently spread the virus by doing so. It is possible to report the discovery of a dead bird either to DEFRA or to the local authority, and that helps the Department to identify where the disease is spreading.

I thank the Minister for his statement. This is indeed a worrying situation. If avian flu were to enter our commercial flock in Northern Ireland, it would have a devastating impact on our poultry industry, including many family farms, on international trade and on the wider economy. Can the Minister confirm that all resources to address outbreaks and prevention—finance and compensation, labour and gas stocks—are being made available? Specifically on compensation, can he confirm that there is adequate finance to pay it and that it will be paid promptly?

We do have adequate resources to deal with the challenges we face. We brought forward the compensation payments, which will lead to earlier payments being made to those being compensated. It is worth acknowledging, however, that farmers are not interested in compensation; they want to keep their flocks safe, and the best way they can do that is through biosecurity. That is not just about washing wellington boots and hands, of course. For example, when bedding introduced to housing has been stored outside, there is a risk that it has come into contact with infected bird faeces. Stringent scrutiny of all the biosecurity measures taken on farms is essential to prevent the spread of the virus.

My question is also about compensation, which I know our constituents do care about. Although it is good to hear the Minister recognise that there has been uncertainty about entitlement to compensation, I am unconvinced that the new approach has been applied since 1 October. In my part of Devon, poultry farmers have been severely affected in recent months. Earlier today, I tried to call the Animal and Plant Health Agency to check its advice on how soon after avian influenza is identified farmers will be entitled to compensation. After unsuccessful phone calls with two advisers, I was asked to email them. How has the APHA guidance for our farmer constituents on the earlier availability of compensation been improved since 1 October?

To be clear, the rules had not changed on 1 October. They changed last week and we backdated the changes to 1 October, so the kick-in moment for compensation for farmers who sadly lost their flocks after 1 October moved slightly backward. I can write to the hon. Member directly setting out the advice APHA is giving farmers on a sheet of paper so that he can familiarise himself with it.