Skip to main content

Avian Influenza

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 3 November 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 1 November.

“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’s 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 2 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 2020-21.

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.”

My Lords, the UK is experiencing its most severe outbreak of avian influenza. Its persistence over the last year, coupled with soaring energy and feed costs, has put the British poultry sector under huge emotional and financial pressure. We welcome the Government’s announcement that a full bird housing order will come into effect from next Monday, but that decision should have been made weeks ago. There has been a serious situation for months and the impact on producers is devastating, with over 3 million birds already culled, so why was this decision not taken earlier?

We recognise that the Government are offering farmers support, but concerns have been raised about whether the compensation scheme is fit for purpose. The Animal and Plant Health Agency’s position is that compensation is paid for live birds not showing signs of disease at the time of culling. But delays to culling, through no fault of farmers, mean that there can be very few birds left alive by the time culling begins, with farmers then not receiving the compensation to which they should be entitled. Will the Government reconsider how compensation is being assessed so that it treats farmers fairly and provides vital financial protection?

I am sure the Minister recognises the significant impact on free-range poultry farmers. The loss of free-range status and subsequent change in labelling requirements causes significant cost and disruption to egg producers and the supply chain, while the prospect of repeatedly losing free-range status threatens the long-term resilience of the industry. The NFU has asked the Government whether they will review the legislation which provides a 16-week protection period for the marketing of free-range eggs when the government housing measures are imposed. The protection period has to be fit for purpose, so the NFU is asking that it should instead last for the duration of these housing measures. Will the Government consider this?

We also understand that the outbreak has spread much faster this year and that we are six weeks ahead of where we were at this time last year. Turkey and geese farmers have warned that if the situation is not resolved, we could face severe shortages over Christmas. Is the Minister able to reassure your Lordships’ House on this matter?

Importantly, we must also consider the long-term approach and strategy to dealing with avian flu, because once this outbreak is over and we have moved on, it will inevitably return. On this note, I should like to ask the Minister about vaccines. Mark Spencer, the Minister in the other place, said in response to a question on Tuesday:

“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”

and that

“because of trade deals, there is a challenge with vaccinated birds entering the food chain”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/22; col. 806.]

If the current vaccines are not effective enough, what government research is taking place or being planned to take place into vaccination? Currently, avian influenza vaccination is not permitted in the UK for commercial poultry, so we need to understand any trade implications of a prospective vaccination programme if we can find a suitable way forward.

As part of the strategy to tackle this disease, will the Government urgently increase investment into research and development to build knowledge and understanding about the potential use of vaccination and, importantly, prioritise international collaboration, as, clearly, this is not just a UK problem? We recognise the seriousness of this situation. I hope the Minister can provide a clear response on the way forward. I reassure him and the Government that any short and long-term measures needed to tackle this terrible disease will have our support.

My Lords, avian influenza is having a devastating effect on the poultry industry and wild bird populations. The epidemic first manifested itself in autumn 2021 when migratory birds started to arrive on our shores. Since then, it has spread and there are now some 91 infected premises in the UK. The vast majority are in East Anglia, the first stopping point for migratory birds, especially waterfowl. I am sure the Minister is as concerned as I am, not only about the effect on seasonal poultry producers but also on biodiversity in the wild bird population.

In the run-up to Christmas, those poultry breeders, especially free-range turkey farmers, will be particularly affected and worried about how they will manage. This is a key season for them, and they cannot easily recover the loss of income from this epidemic at another time of the year. Poultry farmers are grateful for the Government’s change on compensation claiming, with it coming at the start of culling rather than the end. However, changes to the rate of payments starting from 1 October will not help those affected during August and September. Can the Minister say whether the Government are considering any help for these producers?

I, like others, welcome the measures for mandatory housing for poultry and captive birds starting next Monday. This should help to reduce the spread of disease but will nevertheless be a blow for free-range producers. The measures apply whether it is for one hen being kept in a garden or a large poultry business. The measures for mandatory housing are stringent and will incur extra costs for producers. Is there a grant scheme for producers to help with the cost of providing mandatory housing?

As with all animal epidemics, stringent biosecurity measures are essential whether for a small breeder or very large-scale poultry producer. As with the devastating foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, farm-gate foot baths, bedding and animal feed need scrupulous attention to ensure that they are not the cause of spreading infection. Only Defra avian influenza-approved disinfectants should be used.

Noble Lords will know that, if a breeder suspects that they have avian influenza in their flock, it is an offence not to report it to the Defra rural services helpline. Can the Minister say what the penalty for the non-reporting of a suspected outbreak is likely to be? Does the Defra helpline have sufficient staff to answer all the calls they will be receiving?

I turn now to the Government’s proposal to allow poultry farmers to slaughter their birds now before they become infected and freeze them. In particular I am thinking about turkeys in the run-up to Christmas. The proposal is that these birds, after slaughter and freezing, would be thawed and sold as free range rather than frozen birds. These thawed birds would be sold to consumers between 28 November and 31 December.

Since Brexit, there has been concern about sufficient numbers of vets and slaughtermen, who had previously come to the UK in the run-up to the Christmas season to help with the killing and preparation of turkeys. Can the Minister give reassurance that there will be sufficient staff at abattoirs to deal with this early slaughter of birds? I sympathise with the poultry industry and support measures to help it cope through this very difficult period. Equally, it is important to have a ready supply of qualified and competent staff to deal with the early influx of birds at abattoirs.

I am also extremely concerned that frozen birds are to be thawed and sold as free range—which, of course, they were before they were frozen. That is not the issue. The issue is that for years the advice has been that frozen poultry meat, once thawed, should not be refrozen unless it has first been cooked. Given the timeframe during which the thawed birds are to be sold, it is a fair assumption that consumers, seeing the birds for sale and knowing there may be a shortage, will buy what they need for Christmas early and take it home to put into their freezers, ready to take out a couple of day before they are due to be cooked.

In what way will these pre-frozen and thawed birds be labelled? Will the labelling make it clear that, although free-range, the birds have been frozen and thawed and should not be refrozen before being cooked and eaten? A “fresh” bird that has been purchased at the end of November or beginning of December is unlikely to keep in a domestic refrigerator until Christmas Day and still be fit for human consumption. Although the Government’s solution appears to help solve the poultry farmers’ problems, I am concerned about the health aspects of this for the population as a whole and am looking for the noble Lord’s reassurance.

I turn briefly to how the epidemic is affecting wild birds. My colleague, my noble friend Lord Teverson, reports that the shores of Cornwall are littered with the carcasses of dead gannets, and no one is picking them up. This will not be a problem isolated to Cornwall: wherever wild and sea birds congregate in large numbers, there are likely to be large outbreaks of HPAI, resulting in the deaths of birds. What should happen to these carcasses?

Lastly, there are currently no restrictions on organised game-shooting activities. Can the Minister comment on this, please? Is he satisfied that sufficient biosecurity measures are being used on game shoots? I look forward to his comments on the effects of this epidemic.

I am grateful for this opportunity to inform noble Lords about the very serious situation relating to avian influenza and all that we in Defra are doing, working with our colleagues in the devolved Governments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked why we did not impose the housing order sooner. We operate in line with the best advice we get. We Ministers are not experts; we operate on the advice of the chief vet and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, working with many other partners on this issue. We decided to impose the housing order for England. We talked to Scotland in the core group this morning; it decided not to impose a housing order because it believes that the protection zones can contain the outbreaks there. But we are proceeding with an England housing order on Monday, as the noble Baroness correctly pointed out.

The question of housing is important: it can improve the situation by a factor of about two. But good biosecurity can improve it by a factor of 44, which is why we are concentrating on biosecurity and working closely with the sectors to make sure that all keepers of poultry are adopting the best biosecurity they can, whether they are large industrial-scale poultry units or have small ornamental flocks. This also involves people accessing those units for whatever reason.

There is great concern about compensation. It was rightly pointed out that we are in consultation with the industry. Mark Spencer, the Farming Minister, and I had a meeting on Monday with all the representatives of the sector. That is in addition to the core group, which meets several times a week. We took forward their concerns, and one of the demands for the housing order came out of that meeting.

There is significant concern from the industry about the impact that rapid mortality caused by the current H5N1 strain—and the risk of escalating cases and numbers leading to substantial delays to culling—can have on the amount of compensation paid. In response to this, changes to the compensation scheme for avian influenza have been introduced, effective from 1 October. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, pointed out, compensation will be linked to decisions taken at the start, not the end, of planned culling. This will allow us to give earlier certainty about entitlement to compensation and better reflect the impact of outbreaks on premises, leading to swifter payments to help stem any cash-flow pressures.

The free-range issue is absolutely valid. Our current period for that is 16 weeks, and all matters are kept under regular review. I am happy to discuss this in more detail. Last winter, we developed a scheme which allowed eggs to be sold as “barn reared”. That was a simple process of putting a sticker over the “free range” sign, and it was accepted by the industry and by the consumer.

On turkeys for Christmas, around 10 million turkeys are eaten every year at Christmas. They are particularly susceptible to this disease, which is one reason why we brought in the frozen allowance, meaning that birds can be culled early, frozen and then defrosted. We are seeing an increasing number of turkeys falling prey to the disease. At the moment, we think that the situation for Christmas turkeys is there or thereabouts okay, but I would not like to predict that there would not be some impact if it carried on at the current rate. Around 1 million birds have been culled or have died. That cannot not have an effect on the supply chain. It is a resilient supply chain, and alternatives can come from elsewhere, but we want to make sure that people are eating healthy, British-reared turkeys.

The situation on vaccination is important. Currently, two commercial avian influenza vaccines are authorised by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate for use in the UK. These vaccines are unlikely to provide full protection from the strains of highly pathogenic influenza such as HPAI currently circulating in wild birds in Europe and the UK. Only zoos or collections in England holding a current zoo licence can apply for an authorisation to vaccinate. Currently available vaccines have disadvantages in that, although they may be able to reduce mortality, it is possible that some vaccinated birds would still be capable of transmitting the disease if they became infected while not displaying the symptoms. This would increase the time taken to detect and eradicate the virus.

On future-proofing, I refer noble Lords to the precision breeding Bill. This will not cause a rapid change to our ability to have stocks of poultry and waterfowl that are resistant, but it may over a number of years be the sort of thing we should do to make us more resilient to such outbreaks.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was absolutely right to talk about the impact on biodiversity. The most apparent impact has been on shore birds and waterfowl. I was looking the other day at Bass Rock, south of Edinburgh, which for centuries has been white because it is a nesting area for gannets and other seabirds. It is not white this year; you can see the rock colour. That is a stark reminder of the horrendous impact that this disease has had on wild birds. We are measuring biodiversity. We have a wild bird avian influenza strategy, through which we work with the British Trust for Ornithology, the RSPB and a great many other organisations to try to assess the impact it is having on populations. We have an established way of counting wild birds in this country, and we are working with those organisations to make sure we know what the impacts are and where we can find particularly resilient strains, which might lead to future work.

The noble Baroness asked what the penalty was for not reporting. I shall have to write to her on that, but she is absolutely right that it is an offence not to report. There is an incentive. That is why the compensation regulations regarding all farm animals and disease are created in a way that incentivises people to report as early as possible. She was right also to point out the impact on vets; I am sure that we will be questioned on that shortly. We are using the vets we have available at the HPA. We are surging those numbers as best we can and recruiting as many people as we can, but perhaps we will come on to that later.

On the question of game shoots, we are again working on the best evidence. At the moment, it is not considered to be a reason for the spread of the disease—it does not add to the risk—but we are monitoring this, and we are absolutely confident that the prevalence of game in an area does not add to the risk of avian influenza in commercial flocks. That is one of the factors we are taking into the account; these matters are all under review.

My Lords, I will pursue with my noble friend the Minister the question of what is happening in Scotland. There is deep unease that Scotland is not following the same measures as England. Will he keep this under review and use his best offices in that regard? The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, referred to the impact of migratory birds. How can we prevent the spread of wildfowl entering the system in future years?

We have a devolved system of government, and the Scottish Government have this decision in their hands. They will be talking to the Scottish NFU, Scottish research establishments and other interests in Scotland while making their decision. As I said, we are consulting them on a regular basis. On my noble friend’s second point, migratory birds are the reason this disease came to this country. It is a tragedy that is very hard to control because migratory birds are coming from all over Europe and beyond, and we now have the problem that the disease is within our own wild bird population. Whereas in the past it started to flare up at this time of year and more or less ended towards the end of February, it is now established in the kinds of species that I described earlier. All we can do is monitor this and see whether we can find areas of change. This is a flu—an influenza like many others—and, after a while, these viruses diminish in their effect, and great abilities to withstand their impacts start to occur. We must hope that this happens quickly. We are all united in this House in wanting this country to fulfil its desire to see no net loss of biodiversity by 2030, although factors like this make it more difficult. Nevertheless, these species can be extremely resilient: if we can get over this, their numbers can start to recover. I assure noble Lords that we are monitoring this carefully.

My Lords, first of all, I empathise with our farmers who are losing their flocks. It is most distressing for them, on top of the economic challenges they are facing with rising feed and energy costs. Following on from the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, I ask the Minister: what support are the Government giving to the development of improved avian flu vaccines, which have deficiencies as he outlined, and to the development of tests that will differentiate vaccinated birds from naturally infected birds? With regard to trade, what discussions are we having internationally to encourage the adoption and acceptance of vacations? I will ask another question, so as not to disappoint the Minister: what steps are the Government taking to strengthen our veterinary workforce, particularly to facilitate the return of many EU vets to the UK to bolster our very hard-pressed veterinary workforce?

On the emergency measures, we are concentrating absolutely on biosecurity. We are trying to ensure that we get to farms as quickly as possible: they are visited within 24 hours in all but a very few cases, which allows an assessment to be made on which birds are dead and which of those can result in the farmer being compensated. The number of vets is constantly under review. We have a shortage of vets in the Animal and Plant Health Agency, but we have surged those numbers by using vets from the wider population to try to assist us. Vets are on the Home Office’s shortage occupation list, and therefore visas are available for them. However, the noble Lord will know that some EU vets are deterred from taking this route by the level 7 English language requirement to register as a vet in the UK. These matters are constantly under review with the Home Office. The noble Lord asked me specifically about vaccination. I made the point that we are concentrating on the emergency measures, but, looking forward, we will certainly want to see progress made on vaccination so that we can differentiate between vaccinated and non-vaccinated birds. That will alleviate the trade issue, which is the reason why we are not permitting vaccination at this stage.

My Lords, earlier this year, His Majesty’s Government announced the establishment of a new flu map research project, which aims to help us better understand the transmission and spread of avian flu. Along with many others, I welcome the £1.5 million in funding by the Government, but in the light of the severity of this current outbreak, have the Government undertaken an assessment of the need for additional and further funding for this project, mindful of the fact that prevention is better than cure?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. Further to that, the previous but one Prime Minister made a commitment at UNGA—the United Nations General Assembly—that Britain will be part of an international effort to tackle zoonotic disease. This is a zoonotic disease although the risk to human health is described by experts as very low. Ultimately, it is the sort of thing for our new zoonotic research capabilities, working with other countries. We must be mindful that we are far from alone in this business. It is a very serious situation right across Europe, the United States and elsewhere. It is in the interest of all countries that we develop a response which deals with this in the long term. I am talking mainly today about the short-term issues that we are tackling but he is absolutely right to raise the matter of the funding that we have put in and the other measures that we are doing, working with countries around the world to make sure we are tackling this and other zoonotic diseases.

My Lords, I have 16,000 birds at my farm and the problem is the compensation. It is being paid only for birds that remain alive at the time of culling. We have heard of delays in culling because of vets et cetera so there could be very few birds still alive when the vet arrives. A producer had 10,000 birds and had lost all but 200 by the time the vets arrived so there was no compensation for him. Will the Minister consider compensation being paid at the date the producer notifies the vets and not at the time when the vets arrive? This applies to the rules for foot and mouth, so why not make it the same time?

I totally take my noble friend’s point. We are talking about taxpayers’ money here and are deeply sympathetic to farmers who have been hit by this but also have responsibility to make sure that compensation is fair. I am sure that my noble friend’s flock is very well protected and that the systems of management there ensure that the chances of infection are very low. But that is not the case everywhere. The taxpayer will be forking out millions of pounds where there have been biosecurity breaches. I have seen some photographs and have had evidence of lamentable biosecurity measures in place in some really quite large poultry establishments, and of course that has had an effect on the outbreak. We have narrowed the time from notification to someone arriving and have changed the way that the compensation is applied. It is never going to be perfect. The problem we have here is that this is so highly pathogenic. The time from the first visual example of a bird having the disease to large numbers dying is very short. We are getting out there within 24 hours in nearly every case. We continue to try to speed that up, but my noble friend’s experience in this matter is invaluable to the House.

My Lords, I ask a question about the longer term. The Statement said that

“any future decisions on disease control measures, including the use of vaccination, will be based on the latest scientific, ornithological and veterinary advice.”

Is the Minister able to tell the House, especially in relation to the answer he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Trees, from which scientific organisations the department is intending to get the advice that it is seeking, and does it include the Royal Society itself?

I do not know specifically, but I would be very surprised if it does not. Our chief scientific adviser, Professor Gideon Henderson, is a very renowned scientist; he ensures that we use the best and most rigorous scientific advice and that we use it properly. I am very happy to give the noble Viscount more details about how we are approaching the medium to longer-term solution in the areas that he raised. I can assure him that—while scientific advice does vary and, at certain points, it comes down to Ministers making a judgment call—the advice that I have seen on this has been pretty clear. We need to progress that, and I will certainly keep him informed and give more details about the areas of scientific advice that we are tapping into.

My Lords, one of the most important things in life is communication. My noble friend on the Front Bench has gone into great detail, and I think the House also owes a tribute to the noble Baroness on the Opposition Front Bench. But, in today’s world, we are not good at communication. I used to be in charge alongside the COI, and I say to my noble friend that the consumer needs to know what is happening. The consumer is at two ends. First, there is the general public, who will be anxious; we can see now in some of the letters appearing in the national and regional press that people are confused. Will my noble friend pay particular attention to that area? Secondly, there are the retailers, wholesalers, direct sellers and so on. Finally, we have wonderful veterinary schools in this country. They have excellent students. This is a wonderful case history, in a sense, in which all those students can get involved between now and Christmas.

My noble friend is absolutely right to raise the importance of keeping people informed. In fact, it works both ways: members of the public are keeping us informed—often through NGOs, but also directly—in particular about the impact on wild birds. Defra and the Government keep consumers and customers informed directly through social media and other media announcements. We also work through retailers; they give us information and we give them information. I should say that there is a well-established method in England and Wales of reporting sick birds that are discovered. They can be reported to the RSPCA—and similarly in Scotland to the SSPCA—which will give advice and will euthanise wild birds that are sick. Single dead birds, birds of prey or three or more of any species can be rung through to the Defra helpline, which is on our website.

In terms of consumers and what they are going to eat, we will be keeping them informed, but there is absolutely no need for people to rush out and panic buy. This is a very resilient supply chain and we are talking to retailers and others regularly and keeping them informed as well.

On vet schools, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and others, we have developed new vet schools. We have more veterinary surgeons coming into the system and we want to make sure that they are coming into government work as well as the private sector and private practice. We particularly want to encourage them into the large animal sector and this area as well. It is a constant problem, but we are trying to resolve it.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that, in the past 50 years, the global population of domestic poultry has multiplied by six, from 5.7 billion to 36 billion, representing 70% of the avian biomass on this planet. That is a large reservoir, connected by trade, for disease to flourish, which inevitably spills over into wild populations, as we are seeing here. We know that this avian flu originated in a domestic population. The noble Lord may be aware of the editorial last month in the journal Science, which said this avian flu outbreak should be regarded as

“a warning, with devastating consequences if not heeded”.

There is also African swine flu spreading over into wild populations and mycoplasma gallisepticum in finches and other wild birds in North America. The authors argue that we need to see reduced livestock numbers, reduced density on farms, limited movement of livestock and, in middle and higher-income countries, movement to plant-based protein sources. Does the Minister agree that there is a systematic issue with factory farming, which represents an unacceptable risk to human and environmental health?

We have very high animal welfare standards here, as seen in the removal of battery cages, and have worked faster than other countries in Europe and elsewhere to improve those factors. The point lying behind the question of the noble Baroness is that, when my grandparents were alive, chicken was a luxury item that one had relatively rarely. In many cases, it was reared on the premises. It has now become the staple diet of large populations right around the world. In a way, the market has responded to that. I am not saying that complications have not arisen, but the recent drive by retailers for free-range eggs has seen an enormous increase in egg producers in areas such as the Wye Valley, which is starting to have an impact on the natural environment.

The Government have to try to foresee all these things and then bring in measures, whether in planning, the right incentives, regulation or laws. The noble Baroness asks a perhaps more philosophical, societal question; we need to tackle it as best as Governments can, but people want to and like eating chicken and eggs. There are a lot more people around than there were when my grandparents were alive. We have to feed a hungry world, but we have to do so sustainably and mindful of the impacts of disease and on the natural environment.

My Lords, this is a terrible disease; my sympathy goes out to the producers and so forth. I declare my interest as a council member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other conservation interests. I was very heartened to hear of the involvement of the British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB. It is not just gannets; the world population of great skuas is severely at risk. My noble friend may recall that there was some talk of setting up a task force specifically to look at the conservation impacts of this disease.

On game bird releases, while I agree with my noble friend that current shoots will not spread it, I wonder whether we should have done something a bit earlier. If this horrible disease is still so present this time next year, will game bird releases be stopped as they would be now under the housing orders?

I assure my noble friend that there is a sort of task force already in place. Defra and the devolved Administrations, working with the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Natural England, NatureScot, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and non-governmental organisations such as the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology, are monitoring and responding to the effects of avian influenza on wild birds. We produced our Mitigation Strategy for Avian Influenza in Wild Birds in England and Wales, which sets out practical guidance to support land managers, the public, ornithologists and NGOs in England and Wales in their response to the growing threat of avian influenza to wild birds—how they can report it and what measures they can take.

On the other matter, I repeat what I have said. We will keep these factors under observation, but we must remember that, if we bring in measures against one sector, we have to make them consistent. Are we going to ban everyone from walking on a footpath, because carrying the faecal matter of an infected bird on your boots to another part of the countryside could spread it just as badly? We need to be really clear about the impact this could have on the rural economy and the important work many people do for nature conservation, such as gamekeepers, who keep numbers of wild birds vibrant in those areas. We want to make sure we do not cause unseen problems but take proportionate measures on the basis of scientific evidence.