It was good to hear bird/poultry flu on BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning but the interview between Justin Webb and the Chief Vet, Christine Middlemiss (just after 07:30), just exposed the fact that both were operating off a smattering of knowledge about the subject when it comes to wild birds.
That’s OK for a radio presenter, and I rate Justin Webb highly, but a bit more worrying when it comes to the UK Chief Vet. But still, it’s holiday period and maybe Ms Middlemiss drew the short straw.
If you listen to it (the link is above) then notice that the Chief Vet keeps reaching back to domestic birds (which I guess is what she is accustomed to), is very vague about which wild birds she might possibly be thinking of and stresses the importance of surveillance. And as you listen notice that Justin Webb does not really challenge or dive deeper into the answers he is given but moves on to the next subject (almost as though he is moving through a list of questions).
See what you think, but I only mention it because it is so different from an interview on a more political subject where the interviewer would be challenging the spokesperson whether civil servant, think-tank or politician. This was also a political interview because it is about what government is doing on our behalf on a matter of economic, environmental and social importance.
The Chief Vet kept coming back to the importance of surveillance but she wasn’t asked what the surveillance is, what it monitors and what it possibly could discover. A question along those lines would have been enlightening because the only surveillance that Defra admits to on wild birds is this pathetic table updated each week. That is based on a tiny sample of rather fortuitously collected dead birds – it’s not a surveillance programme which would tell you which species have bird flu or whether bird flu is increasing or decreasing in wild birds. Unless there is some other work happening about which Defra has kept very quiet then it isn’t really surveillance of anything much.
The question about a vaccine was very odd since we seemed to be talking about wild birds – and the Chief Vet seemed slightly thrown by the oddness of the question momentarily but it was really a gift to talk about the future hope for a future vaccine for poultry, presumably. It is challenging to think of how a vaccine will be applied usefully to wild birds.
Unfortunately Justin Webb gave the interviewee the answer to the question when he said that spill-over to humans ‘at the moment doesn’t seem to be much of a risk’ so of course the Chief Vet agreed, but said it was an ongoing worry. This was the time, in a political interview, to ask ‘Are you certain that this disease won’t affect people’ to which the answer can only be ‘No’ and then the follow-up is, ‘So what are you doing and what should the public do? If I come across a dead or ill bird what should I do?’ and see what the response from Defra is. Get it on the record.
The question of other species getting so-called bird flu was interesting if only because the Chief Vet mentioned that Foxes can get bird flu – at least that is what I take her answer to mean. How do we know that? Was that in the UK? Remember we have some of the highest Fox densities in Europe and some of the highest urban fox densities too. The Chief Vet mentioned the importance of surveillance again – what surveillance is there to detect bird flu in wild mammals in the UK?
Ms Middlemiss tried to sound concerned about wild birds but, I thought, failed. She said that Defra wanted to know what the impact was on ‘conserved’ species, threatened species, and went back to needing to understand and that surveillance would tell us. Well, that’s a bit confusing and also a bit pathetic. We know the rough scale of die off of many seabird species but Defra refuses to say anything about it – and this was an opportunity. Internationally important seabird populations have been hit very hard – the declines of some species in the UK are of global importance. I’d have thought that was worth mentioning but it’s not a very vet-ish subject- it’s not what vets think about much or get engaged in. What is the surveillance that is going to tell us more about this? It’s not analysing a few corpses collected on beaches, is it?
The call from NGOs for a national response plan for the wild bird situation was mentioned at the start of the interview but not really revisited. The Chief Vet was not asked to outline the national response plan but from what we could gather from the interview it is along the lines of continued surveillance (which isn’t much use) and wait and see what happens. That’s a national lack of response plan.
See previous blogs on this subject: Latest weekly bird/poultry flu update from Defra – for what it’s worth 28 July; It’s always touching to get a personal reply from a Minister of the Crown 22 July; RSPB press release – Defra asleep at the wheel during bird flu emergency 20 July; NEWS – Hen Harriers with Bird Flu on the moors 7 July; RSPB press release – Roseate Terns and Avian/Poultry Flu 1 July; Bird/poultry/avian flu is having a serious conservation impact 18 June.