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Last Updated: Friday, 16 December 2005, 09:04 GMT
Lords attack UK's bird flu plans
Chickens being vaccinated against avian flu
Chicken flocks in south east Asia have been devastated by avian flu
The government's preparations for any bird flu pandemic have been criticised by a House of Lords committee.

The Science and Technology committee said the UK was ahead of many other countries but could do better.

It warned of food shortages if shops were not properly prepared and urged a clearer policy on antiviral drugs and better guidance for frontline workers.

It also urged more focus on South East Asia. Ministers said preparing for a possible pandemic was a "top priority".

A new Cabinet committee to deal with bird flu, chaired by Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, was set up on Thursday.

The Lords committee described government plans as an "excellent top-level account of the UK health service response to a pandemic".

We are alarmed at the risk of serious disruption to food supplies
Lords' Science and Technology committee

But it says more needs to be done at "lower levels", such as advice for primary care groups, GPs and local authorities.

A pandemic would affect every branch of social life including schools, transport and food shops, it said.

"We are alarmed at the risk of serious disruption to food supplies, and at the lack of contact between the government and the major food retailers," it said.

Crossbencher Baroness Finlay told BBC Radio 4's Today programme food distributors needed plans on how to deal with, for example, a quarter of heavy goods vehicle drivers being off sick.

Panic buy

People were less likely to panic buy if those were in place, she added.

The committee also says the government should strengthen its backing of international efforts to prevent a flu pandemic in South East Asia, to "nip it in the bud".

The H5N1 virus, which has killed 71 people, is common among domestic birds in this region, and a mutation of it could lead to a pandemic virus.

A flu pandemic looks likelier now than at any time since the 1960s, but... with co-ordinated international action it can still be prevented
Lord Broers, inquiry chair

The report urges better surveillance from bodies such as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organization (WHO).

It also calls for a rapid response plan for any outbreak of a new strain in humans, and more funding for international healthcare projects.

And it echoes recent calls by government adviser Professor Neil Fergusson to consider using antiviral drug Tamiflu as a preventative treatment.

The government is stockpiling 14.6m doses - to cover 25% of the population - designed to limit the effects of flu on those already ill.

Health minister Rosie Winterton said Tamiflu could be used as a preventative measure - particularly if there were isolated outbreaks - but the stockpile should be maintained for treating those who fall ill.

More investment is also needed into vaccine research, the report says.

'Head start'

Lord Broers, who chaired the committee's inquiry, said a pandemic looked likelier than at any time since the 1960s "but it's not inevitable".

Ms Winterton said the UK government was already working closely with other governments and with the WHO to follow South East Asia developments.

Separately, WHO expert Richard Laing has said UK uptake of the annual flu jab needed to increase, GP magazine reports.

He said this would mean vaccine manufacturing capacity would need to increase, ensuring companies were capable of making a vaccine for a pandemic virus.

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "It is vital we act on issues like the availability of critical care beds, exploring new technologies for hastening and increasing the availability of vaccines, and the awareness in the NHS and all the essential industries of the scale of the problems they may face".

Hear more about the Lords report

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