Listen to this article
No doubt we are all getting a bit hysterical about this. Yes, a death-wreaking pandemic is winging its way towards our shores, threatening life, limb and the very future of Bernard Matthews’ turkey rolls.
But on the bright side it might be next year till it gets here. That’s enough time to stockpile enough anti-viral drugs to safeguard one in four of the population. It may not even be that bad. The whole thing could kill no more than the Kashmir earthquake – although that is obviously at the low end of chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson’s expectations. About 12,500 people pop off from flu every year; what’s a few more in the scheme of things?
What is perhaps perplexing about the official approach to bird flu is the contrast between its attitude to what we are told is the certain arrival of a citizen-culling virus and its stance on terrorism.
When 50 people are slaughtered on the tube, the government reacts at speed, sweeping away whole areas of civil liberties, creating new criminal offences and generally wanting to be seen to take every precaution to every disaster. But faced with 50,000–750,000 possible deaths we get Sir Liam Donaldson explaining that we are “overdue” a pandemic. So buck up.
These two responses seem slightly at odds given the numbers involved. Where, for example, are the new range of offences designed to tackle the avian menace? Surely there should be a new crime of incitement to farm poultry; and where is the chief veterinary officer warning of the 2,000 home-grown hornbills at large in our skies?
Have our police yet adopted a new shoot to kill policy for incoming Canada geese? Have the intelligence services made any efforts to infiltrate the turkey farms of East Anglia or the wetlands around the Fens, where wild birds are known to congregate? Can we expect dawn raids on the chinese restaurants in Gerrard St where poultry is openly displayed in the windows in a clear glorification of the eating of chicken.
Where is the clampdown on free-range chickens? Surely some of the their liberties have to be sacrificed in the war on bird flu. Can we expect suspicious budgerigars to be hauled off to Belmarsh after an increase in chatter? As yet, Clive Stafford-Smith has not been called upon to defend even a single parakeet detained without trial.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. We must stress that the overwhelming majority of birds are decent, uncontaminated fowl, who seek nothing more than the odd breadcrumb and the right to be stuffed with Paxo at the end of their lives, But for pity’s sake, we haven’t even received an information booklet, with a catchy mantra for survival, say, “stay in, breathe out, eat fish”.
Faced with the risk of thousands of deaths we hear that because the government began ordering Tamiflu only in March, it will be next September before there is enough to safeguard even one in four of the population. Then again don’t panic; there’s a crack team at the renamed ministry of agriculture (remember how well they handled BSE and foot and mouth) on stand-by to protect our shores from the terror at 20,000ft.
As to the plans to mass produce a vaccine, once the flu virus has mutated into its killer form, well, they’ll get back to us.
There was little sign of this cool approach to the terror threat before July 7. We did not get Charles Clarke telling us that we were “overdue” a terrorist outrage (although we did get Lord Stevens playing the management of expectations game) The war against terror was not left in hands of the intelligence services equivalent of MAFF – the home guard of animal diseases. Likewise, when potential terror cells are uncovered, the security services do not, on balance take the view that it should wait till next September before beginning surveillance activity.
The government’s approach to these diverse threats seems as much linked to its level of culpability for events – although a weekend’s bad headlines will doubtless quicken its resolve to act. Bird flu pandemics can be blamed on external factors (remember we’re due one, so stop whining). Terror attacks might be blamed on government policy or intelligence failures. Somewhere between Sir Liam and the Home Office lies the right approach to threats. Yet apparently its attitude bears little relation to the potential loss of life.
Get alerts on Columnists when a new story is published