Imports of pet birds into the European Union are likely to be banned on Tuesday, after a parrot died in quarantine in the UK of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus.

Markos Kyprianou, the EU health commissioner, said he wanted to block a potential route by which bird flu could spread across Europe.

But the ban is intended in part to protect the health of quarantine workers: about 60 people have died of bird flu in Asia after coming into contact with infected birds.

Mr Kyprianou announced the proposed ban at a meeting of EU health ministers in Luxembourg; it is expected to be endorsed by veterinary experts on Tuesday.

The decision to block the lucrative business in birds such as parrots is potentially risky; the European Commission is concerned that the trade could be driven underground, bypassing quarantine procedures.

“That is a worry,” said a spokesman for Mr Kyprianou. “That is why we have urged member states to strengthen border controls to guard against smuggling.”

The ban will be reviewed after a month, he said.

The European Union is the world's biggest importer of birds caught in the wild, with an estimated one million arriving every year. Britain accepted more than 100,000 of them between 2000 and 2003 and is the biggest importer of parrots in Europe.

Imported birds are supposed to spend 21 days in quarantine in their country of origin and a minimum of 30 days in the destination country, but experts say the system is badly regulated.

Debby Reynolds, the British government's chief veterinary officer, said Britain could not act on its own over an EU-wide ban, which required a Commission decision.

Meanwhile, she promised any necessary investigation into British quarantine rules which may have allowed the parrot from Surinam to be quarantined in the same space as imported birds from South America and Taiwan.

The parrot had tested negative for avian flu before shipment to Britain. Some of the birds it came into contact with have died and their bodies are being tested for the disease.

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