The Spectator

Lock up your chickens

Lock up your chickens

A grim inevitability hangs over the country as we go to press. Some time over the next week or two the first dead swan of spring will be pulled from the rushes in the south of England, taken to a laboratory and declared to have perished from the H5N1 virus. From that moment on, the news virtually writes itself. Exclusion zones will be formed, schools and businesses closed, bridleways sealed off. Poultry farmers will be imprisoned in their homes, children’s budgies seized and put to death before their wailing owners. Country fairs will be called off, hunting and shooting will cease, and there will be demands for the Grand National and the Cup Final to be cancelled.

We can reasonably guess as much because if you substitute birds for cloven-hoofed animals, this is exactly what happened during the foot and mouth outbreak five years ago. As with foot and mouth, the government assures us that it has an emergency plan in place. But what reassurance is that? Just as the then Ministry of Agriculture seemed to have learnt nothing between the foot and mouth outbreak of 1967 and the epidemic of 2001, we have yet to be convinced that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) really has a workable scheme beyond the three-point plan it evolved on that latter occasion: first, do nothing; second, panic and overreact; and third, rapidly backtrack as it becomes clear that the official response to the disease has caused far more damage to the economy as a whole than it has prevented harm to agriculture.

The difference with bird flu, of course, is that the potential for panic is so much greater, given that it is possible for humans to contract the illness from birds and that it is theoretically possible for the virus to mutate into a form which would allow direct human-to-human transfer of the disease.

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