A committee of the House of Lords has criticised the government’s plans for dealing with a bird flu pandemic, which, they said, could trigger a food shortage, reports the BBC.
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 the government’s plans as an “excellent top-level account of the UK health service response to a pandemic”.
But it said more needed to be done at “lower levels”, such as advice for primary care groups, GPs and local authorities.
A pandemic would affect not only hospitals, but 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.
“The government urgently needs to address the resilience of food distribution networks.”
Crossbencher Baroness Finlay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The infrastructure in society which is outside health still needs to be maintained.”
She said food distributors needed to develop plans of action to deal with, for example, a quarter of heavy goods vehicle drivers being off sick. People were less likely to panic buy if plans were in place to maintain supplies, 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, which is therefore an area where a mutation could lead to a pandemic virus.
The report urges better surveillance from bodies such as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organization.
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 leading adviser Professor Neil Fergusson for the UK Government to consider using the antiviral drug Tamiflu as a preventative treatment.
Currently, 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, particularly ways in which a vaccine could be prepared faster, the report says.
Lord Broers, who chaired the committee’s inquiry, said: “A flu pandemic looks likelier now than at any time since the 1960s. But it’s not inevitable, and with co-ordinated international action it can still be prevented.”