By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 24/02/06):
Who says nobody gives credit to ministers where it is due? Let us hear it for Margaret Beckett. She is playing avian flu absolutely right. Invited to panic by a coalition of scaremongers, lobbyists, academics, headline writers and nutcases, Beckett and her junior, Ben Bradshaw, at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are keeping their heads.
No, they are not quarantining something called «the national flock» at the bidding of the tabloids. No, they are not hiring every agri-spiv in the land and paying them millions to cull, jab, immobilise or incarcerate birds. No, they cannot see any argument for poultry vaccination when not a single case of avian flu has occurred in the British Isles and not one chicken has died in Europe. If zoos want to vaccinate their prize parakeets they are free to do so. It is up to them.
As Beckett pointed out in Brussels this week, the arrival of avian flu in Britain is now «increasingly likely», given the isolated cases of sick wildfowl found across Europe. But increasingly likely does not mean certain or even very likely. Even if the arrival were bad news for chickens, it would not necessarily pose a threat to humans. Were any of these hypotheticals to occur, new steps might be appropriate, but not now.
In other words, these ministers are doing what their predecessors seemed unable to do, which is make a mature assessment of risk. Of course, there is a chance of flu being discovered in some wayward winged migrant. There is an outside chance that it might then translate into the mass chicken population. There is a wilder chance that it could mutate and attack humans, and mutate again to become infectious between humans. All this «could» take us back to the 1918 epidemic, if not to bubonic plague and the Black Death. But I do not employ ministers to scare me witless. I employ them to assess the risk of these things happening and balance that risk against the cost of minimising it within reason.
Seen from Defra, this must seem like spitting in the wind. Whenever the British media combine the noun «threat» with the adjective «deadly», all restraint evaporates. Mad mullahs, Scud missiles, tubercular asylum seekers and killer viruses are dumped in the same rhetorical box as the Luftwaffe c1940. Assault by anything with wings terrifies the British, whether it is a Heinkel or a hoopoe bird. Coastal command goes on alert, tea ladies rush to ack-ack positions, shotguns are licensed and East Anglian house prices collapse.
The press has this week depicted the avian menace as if it were a Göring remake of Hitchcock’s The Birds. The ravens of the Tower of London are to be taken indoors lest the monarchy fall. RSPB wardens are issued with headgear against faecal bombardment by Canada geese. On Monday, the nation gave prayers of thanks when the flight path of a dead French duck was traced as southerly, not westerly.
Meanwhile, vaccine manufacturers are terrifying public-health officials, and virologists are queueing up with Fleet Street quotes. «Are we next?» screeches a London University professor, John Oxford, declaring that bird flu «will be the first pandemic of the 21st century». The government, he cries, «must now confront the immediate threat», as if the overflight of a misguided house martin was as menacing as Saddam’sWMD. The World Health Organisation warns that «one in four Britons could die» from the flu. The editorials pick up the cry and demand something be done, preferably involving mass slaughter and expense.
As far as I can read it, the flu strain known as H5N1 has taken eight years to spread from east Asia to Europe. In that time, it has killed just 91 people who have been in intimate contact with diseased birds. Roughly 200 people are ill at present, with a 60% chance of recovery. Short of eating infected bird faeces, humans seem close to immune. As world diseases go, this is trivial, yet it currently consumes more time and column inches than MRSA, malaria or Aids.
That other countries are running scared is neither here nor there. The Dutch are ordering their chickens indoors. The French have cornered a market with 600 million face masks. Some European governments are planning mass vaccination. In Britain, that would require 20m doses for freerange poultry alone (not to mention 180m battery chickens) and an army to enforce it. Small wonder the vaccine manufacturers join the call for «the government to act». Yet vaccination is at best a partial remedy, since it needs repeating and does not protect carriers against infecting other birds.
Scare is so much the British style of government that its absence is a genuine surprise. The past decade has been punctuated by wildly overstated threats from salmonella, BSE, foot and mouth, Sars, ricin, smallpox and anthrax. During the great al-Qaida scare, Downing Street even ordered thousands of top people to be inoculated against smallpox. Were they, or was it a stunt? During foot and mouth in 2001, Whitehall hurled £8bn at stock farmers to fight an epidemic that did not kill cattle, let alone humans, and posed no threat to domestic food supplies. The only threat was to the export earnings of the «Big Beef» lobby. It was more an opportunity for Blair to don a boiler suit, dive into Cobra and «save the nation» from the latest killer menace.
With avian flu the scientists appear, at last, to be behaving themselves. They are in a privileged position in being able to terrify politicians and public alike through the media megaphone, yet they carry no responsibility for the validity of their predictions or the cost of preventing them. Like the lunatic edicts of the health and safety executive, scientific advice tends to state an unquantified threat coupled with assurance of unqualified security if the preventive measures proposed are adopted – provided only that enough money is spent.
Ministers rely on professional advice because, if they ignore it as exaggerated, they will be hung, drawn and quartered when anything goes wrong. A heavy duty therefore rests with scientific advisers not just to say «there is a risk» but to share with the public their assessment of how great it is and what might be reasonable to minimise it. Scientists know that the media are riskilliterate. In the case of BSE, science suggested that millions of people might go soft in the head, leaving ministers twisting in the wind. This led to absurd beef bans, trade restrictions and massive compensation.
Responsible ministers should be proof against industry lobbying and media scares. They should declare the risk in a course of action and adjust it to circumstance. Hindsight may prove Beckett’s assessment wrong. It may indicate that she should have incarcerated and vaccinated the national flock. At present, and on the available evidence, that would be an exaggerated response. She may be proved right or wrong, but either way she deserves support for an honest public assessment of risk backed by a clear decision. If she is not supported, ministers will never take risks and merely send us gigantic bills.