HL Deb 24 November 1970 vol 313 cc89-113

7.3 p.m.

EARL FERRERS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: What further action they propose to take in order to ensure the more effective control of the disease fowl pest? The noble Earl said: My Lords, we have discussed this afternoon a whole host of far-ranging subjects, from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to defectors from the United States Forces. I would ask your Lordships to take off your long-distance glasses for a moment, and to try to focus your minds on something a little nearer home. It may not be of quite such world-shaking impact as the other subjects that we have been discussing, but it is nevertheless of great importance to that section of the community which is affected by the subject matter of the Question that I have put down on the Order Paper.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the disease of fowl pest has gone through the poultry industry, especially in East Anglia, like a scythe. The disease is still spreading, and it is spreading outside East Anglia into other parts of the country: It has spread to such an extent that it has been identified in 35 counties. Indeed, so great has been the spread of this disease that even the Irish Republic are requesting people who enter their country and who have been on poultry farms in Great Britain to report to the veterinary officer at their ports of disembarkation on arrival. The object of my Question is to draw to the attention of your Lordships the devastating effect which this disease has had upon the whole of the poultry industry—and by "poultry industry" I do not mean just the producers and the keepers of poultry; I refer also to the packing stations, the hatcheries, the retailers, and all those who are affected by it. My object is to see whether there is any way in which this disease can be more effectively controlled in the future.

I would say here that my Question is not intended at all to imply any criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, or of their veterinary officers, who have done, and indeed are doing, a magnificent job in trying to tight this disease. There are those who offer criticism: of course there always will be. It is only human nature to try to find a peg on which to hang your hat, and in this matter the Ministry are an obvious choice. But I believe that the veterinary officers of the Ministry have done an extremely conscientious job in the most trying circumstances, and often at great personal inconvenience to themselves.

At the outset, I should tell your Lordships that I myself keep poultry. My poultry, like so many other poultry in East Anglia, have been affected by the disease—although I am bound to say that I have come off lightly. But I hope that the generosity of your Lordships will enable you to refrain from concluding that the fact that my poultry have been affected is the reason why I am raising this matter to-day. It is not for that reason, but simply because this disease has given the whole of the poultry industry, of which I happen to form a very small part, an almighty blow.

When one talks of fowl pest, one is apt to think of a farmer whose birds are struck with a disease from which they will either get better or die. But the repercussions from this disease go far deeper than that. As regards table poultry or broilers, the whole operation, from before the egg which produces the chick, right through to the packing station and the retailer, has to be coordinated. The packing station is the centre around which all the operations function, and it is essential that the packing stations should have a continuous throughput. Accordingly, the birds which are being produced for a packing station have all to be at a certain age at the time of slaughter. Therefore, in order to fit into the cycle of the packing station the grower must have his chicks on a certain day. In order for the grower to receive his birds on an appointed day, the hatchery has to set the eggs which produce these birds on an appointed day. In order for the hatchery to have the eggs to produce, it must ensure that there are supplies of eggs from the breeding farms. And in order for the breeding farms to be able to supply the eggs, they have to have assured quantities of mature laying birds.

When a site of broilers, which may be anything from 4,000 to 150,000 birds, is smitten by this disease, then this quantity of birds is plucked out of the cycle of the packing station. Your Lordships will see that the effect of this disease, therefore, goes much deeper than the financial and the physical loss which may be sustained by the grower of the birds. For, like a goods train shunting, it bumps all the way down the line. When one realises that farms containing more than 12 million birds have been affected by fowl pest since September, and that 7 million birds have died from the disease, one begins to get an idea of the hideous enormity of the problem. Most of these outbreaks have been in East Anglia. In my own county of Norfolk alone, 3½ million birds have died, while birds which are usually not the subject of this disease have also been dying from it. There have been reports of pheasants contracting the disease, as well as pigeons and sparrows; and there have even been cases of owls and rare buzzards being affected.

I am bound to say, in passing, that I had hoped on this occasion to have the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill (who is not here this evening), who has always shown such an interest in the control of brucellosis in cattle because of its effect on humans. She may not know that fowl pest is also transmissible to man. Some years ago, when the slaughter and compensation policy was in operation, my farm manager happened to contract fowl pest, and I was sufficiently injudicious to suggest to him that he also ought to be slaughtered and I be duly compensated. I am bound to say that on that occasion I found that my sense of humour was in marked contrast to his.

The way in which this disease strikes is one of extreme savagery, and it differs from the way it has struck in the past. Since the slaughter and compensation policy was replaced in 1964 by a policy of voluntary vaccination with a dead vaccine, there have been outbreaks of fowl pest in vaccinated stock attributed to the mesogenic or mild strain of the virus, and losses in these cases have been up to about 20 per cent.

But the picture in the present outbreak is very different. It has struck far more sharply and far more speedily, and the losses have been immense. One packing station has had losses on its sites of up to 95 per cent. of birds in 24 hours. Another has recorded losses of 98 per cent. and the remaining 2 per cent. of birds were so useless and so distorted that they had to be killed. On 22 sites supplying one packing station, 20 have been affected by the disease, one of them twice. One firm has already lost three quarters of a million birds, and is still losing 90,000 to 100,000 per week. Another firm has already lost over 14 million birds. The point is that these birds have all been vaccinated with a Ministry approved vaccine.

This gives rise to a whole host of questions. Has the broiler industry been wasting its time over the last six years in vaccinating its birds if, when there is a field challenge, the birds succumb? I think it probably has not, but it makes one wonder. It costs about ¾d. per "shot" to vaccinate a bird, and since 1964 one company has spent £300,000 in vaccinating its stock in order to protect them from fowl pest. Yet, when there is a challenge, not only have they succumbed to the disease, but the company has sustained losses from fowl pest of 150,000.

The Ministry of Agriculture have always stated that there must be 80 per cent. of the national flock vaccinated to ensure total security; and because of the initial scare of fowl pest in 1964 and the subsequent effectiveness of the vaccination policy, producers have become slack, and the percentage of vaccinations of total stock has dropped. In Essex, where this current outbreak started, under 50 per cent. of the poultry had been vaccinated, and the poultry industry may well stand, therefore, to share a large proportion of the blame for this current out break.

I am bound to say that I have never quite understood the logic of the 80 per cent. requirement, though I appreciate its objective. If I wish to be vaccinated against measles I go down to the doctor and get a jab; but I do not expect that the whole of Chelsea and Kensington and South Ealing should be similarly treated. Of course it is desirable to have 80 per cent. of flocks vaccinated, but a policy of protection leaves much to be desired if the effectiveness of it to an individual depends not on his participation, but in the active and voluntary participation in it of everyone else over whom he has no control.

If the vaccination policy has been worth while, has the virus mutated and changed, as viruses sometimes do, so that the vaccine which was effective against the virus as it was originally constructed is now not effective against the virus as at present constructed? It is a normal practice to test the efficiency of the methods of vaccination by subjecting a sample of vaccinated birds to a laboratory test. In samples of about 20, three or four birds would normally die; and in the past those who have vaccinated the birds—frequently they are contractors—were blamed for these deaths because of poor vaccination. But recently a sample of vaccinated birds was subjected to a laboratory challenge and all of them died. Is that the fault of the vaccinators, or is the vaccine not proof against the virus? Are the Ministry sure that the present outbreak is wholly and totally of the Newcastle disease—the name commonly attributed to fowl pest? Are they quite certain that there is no evidence of the Peracute form of fowl pest which is still subject to the slaughter and compensation policy? When one used to inquire what the difference was between fowl pest and the Peracute form one was always told, in a rather sinisterly succinct fashion, that with the Peracute form the birds just die en masse, and very quickly too.

I suggest that this is exactly what has been happening, and if no blood samples are taken by the Ministry at every outbreak, how do the Ministry know with any degree of conviction that this is not Peracute fowl pest? There have been reports of lesions being found on dead birds examined by independent veterinary surgeons which are indicative of the presence of Peracute fowl pest. The Ministry have always been adamant that this is not the Peracute fowl pest, but I am bound to make it clear that, over this, they are not carrying the industry with them. The opinion that many of these outbreaks are of Peracute fowl pest is one held by a great number of respected people in the poultry industry, and I hope that my noble friend, if he contends that they are not of this type of disease, will make out a better and more convincing case than has been made out by the Ministry up to now.

If we are to have an effective vaccination policy, with a dead vaccine, we come up against the problem of how to vaccinate effectively. Here one has a distinct difference between broiler birds and laying birds. If chicks are to be grown for laying stock it is recommended that they are vaccinated at 18 days, 10 weeks and at point-of-lay. Then, if there is a further outbreak, they can be re-vaccinated. This has proved, on the whole, to give a fairly effective, albeit not a total, immunity from fowl pest.

But broilers present a very different problem. Their life is only eight weeks and they can be vaccinated only once or possibly twice. But it is now considered that they will never have a full immunity from the disease for, by the time the immunity has been built up in the birds, they will have been slaughtered. The result is that in the case of broilers a large part of their life is spent unprotected, and yet they live in conditions most likely to incubate the disease and, by the nature of the powerful fans which are used to ventilate, they are perfect disseminators of the virus. This type of bird, therefore, is the largest section of the poultry industry in numbers, the least protected by the vaccine, the most susceptible to the disease and the best spreader of it.

The fact that we must fully appreciate is that the present system of protection against the disease has broken down and we might as well recognise the fact openly. Confidence in the dead vaccine has also been shaken very badly indeed. Fowl pest is still a notifiable disease and when it is found on the premises the owner is by law bound to inform the Ministry of the presence of this disease. The Ministry will then prevent the removal of the infected birds from the house until the disease has passed. But birds in other houses on the same site may be removed as quickly as possible to avoid their contracting the disease.

Therefore, birds are going out into the packing stations at present at all ages and sizes wherever they can be processed, which leaves the packing stations empty at the time when the birds would normally have been processed. This, combined with the fact that many sites are not being restocked for fear of reinfection, has thrown the packing stations into complete jeopardy, and many are in real threat of closure. My information is that there is not a packing station in East Anglia (of which there are some 15) which is not on short time or which has not closed down. Equally, because in many instances houses are not being restocked, hatcheries have in turn a much reduced call for chicks and shortly they will be running on part time. Meanwhile, the birds in the infected houses on the site continue discharging the virus through the fans and reinfecting the other birds. The one great advantage of the slaughter and compensation policy was that, if there was an outbreak, the source of infection was destroyed immediately. Now the source of infection continues to thrive and to threaten others.

The outbreaks are so numerous that the Ministry cannot physically deal with the number of reported incidents quickly enough. In one case the Ministry were informed on a Friday of an outbreak of fowl pest in 25,000 birds, and they said that they would come and inspect the site the following Wednesday. When they appeared on the following Wednesday, out of the original 25,000 birds only 150 were left on the site alive.

The dilemma was graphically put to me by a member of one company the other day, who said that they are restocking their houses but they know that within a fortnight the chances are very high that these birds will all get the disease. When I asked why such a risk was taken he replied that, as a packing station costs between £1,000 and £2,000 per day to run, the risk of having a packing station with no birds to process was even greater. If no birds are being reared or processed, then the business folds up—it is just as simple as that. The losses which people are sustaining as a result of this disease are absolutely crippling, and they cannot continue to stand these losses.

This situation is having two major effects. First people are now just not notifying the Ministry when they have the disease. As soon as growers realise that this disease is on their premises, in many cases the birds are sent immediately for slaughter and the Ministry is not told about it. However wrong this may be, one can understand any person not being prepared to suffer the huge financial loss of informing the Ministry and then waiting and watching the birds die. Secondly any method of protection for the birds is bound to be used, and this includes the illegal use of live vaccine. This is being brought in from the Continent at the moment. Live vaccine used to be manufactured in England and exported for use by the Continent. It is now manufactured, as I understand it, on the Continent by a similar company or the parent company of the firm which manufactured it in England, and it is now being brought back into this country, which is legal, but is being used in poultry, which of course is illegal. The live vaccine is a very different creature from what it was in 1964, and there are many eminent veterinary officers outside the Ministry who feel that, if strains such as the Hitchener B.1 vaccine were used, because of their nature and easy application the disease would soon be brought under control.

It is true that the Ministry are doing tests with live vaccine at the moment, and I believe that they have now completed vaccinating all the birds which they intend to put on trial. But they will now have to sit back and wait for some 12 to 15 weeks to assess the results. Their caution is understandable, and they may well be considered by many to be right. I felt that the Ministry were wrong to try such an experiment at the time of a virulent outbreak. Why, if the live vaccine was so good, was it not tried before? Are we sure that it will not transmit many sub-clinical diseases such as leukæmia, which was transmitted by the use of live vaccine in America? What will happen to the Cordon Sanitaire which this island enjoys, and the protection from cheap imported poultry which is one of the results—although not one of the objectives—of a dead vaccine policy? These are all very pertinent views and ones which I hold strongly.

However, I suggest that we are living in critical times, and I am going to suggest to your Lordships what I never thought I would suggest—and, indeed, what I did not intend to suggest when I first put down this Question. But my researches have subsequently assured me that what my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture ought to do now is to authorise the use, under his control, of live vaccine. This is a real and virulent epidemic, as I have tried to explain to your Lordships, and the disease is speading like a forest fire. I do not believe that in these circumstances the Ministry of Agriculture can, or should, move with the caution which in normal circumstances would rightly be expected of them. In my judgment (and I repeat that I have altered entirely the view which I originally held over this matter; and in this I do not think I am alone) live fowl pest vaccine should be used in the badly affected areas, under Ministry supervision, forthwith and without delay, in order to bring this disease under control. Unlike the dead vaccine, it can be administered even to day-old chicks and gives a greatly increased resistance over the dead vaccine when it is met by a challenge.

I would put forward as one of the most important factors in this argument—and I realise that in the poultry industry this is a controversial argument—that in this outbreak the dead vaccine can no longer be expected to control the spread of the disease. The earliest at which one can reasonably vaccinate a chick is at 12 days. This does not give an immunity, but it sensitises the bird so that it is more responsive to the second vaccination, which cannot be done for a further fortnight, bringing the bird to 26 days of age. By the time an immunity has been built up in this bird it is another 10 days older. So with a dead vaccine the bird is 36 days old before there is any reasonable chance of immunity. Yet birds are getting fowl pest at 14 days, and at 8 days, of age. Therefore, if we keep the dead vaccine policy this disease must continue and birds must continue to die. And, at the present rate of progress, each day the Minister delays the decision to use live vaccine, 60,000 birds will die.

I do not believe that the Government can, or should, stand by and watch this disease rampage through the industry and through the country, crippling good and efficient firms in its wake, and ruining hardworking people who are doing the best that they can, without taking drastic action when they have a possible remedy in their hands. I am not one of those who believe—


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Earl will tell us whether the live vaccine has an immediate effect so that at the first vaccination it will get immunity. Is that what he is telling us?


My Lords, this is a complicated subject and involves also the immunity which the chick receives from its parents. But one can vaccinate at a day old, and my understanding is that one obtains a very much quicker immunity having vaccinated the bird with a live vaccine, because a live vaccine gives to the bird, by way of an eye, or through the drinking water, the actual virus, and so it stimulates the antibodies in the bird very much more quickly than does a dead vaccine.

I am not one of those who believe that the live vaccine is the panacea for all our troubles, but I do believe that at the present moment the advantages of its use far outweigh the disadvantages. It may be that the use of live vaccine permanently would not be necessary, and that it could be kept for use in an emergency and in case of an outbreak, when its use would enable the outbreak to be contained within an area. But if that is to be so, and if the dead vaccine policy is to be continued, I should wish to be far more convinced than I am at the moment that the dead vaccine really works, and especially in broilers. If, after due research, the Ministry continue to believe that an 80 per cent. vaccination of all the stock will protect the industry from fowl pest, then vaccination should be made compulsory, with very heavy penalties on those who fail to do so and, by so failing, put the livelihood of others at risk.

I do not accept the argument that just because checking on vaccination would be difficult to police, therefore it should not be made compulsory. Of course there will be people who will try to get round it—there always are. But they will be in the minority and will be exposing themselves, if caught, to very heavy penalties. After all, we have a speed limit on the roads which is fairly, if not totally, effective, and nobody would seriously advocate its abolition just because it cannot be enforced in every single instance. The penalties for infringement are pretty severe.

My Lords, the Ministry have the power to enable the industry to extricate itself from this dreadful mess, but I respectfully suggest that they need to change their tactics. I believe that, in the interests of the individuals and of the industry—and of the disease itself—these tactics should be changed. Most organisations will be able to overcome the losses which they have suffered to date, but what will ruin them is when they cannot re-stock their houses because of fear of re-infection. This will render the houses empty, the packing stations empty, the hatcheries empty; and the eggs which are produced specially for hatching will have to go, at financial loss, for consumption.

I apologise for having kept your Lordships so long in describing what is a sad and sorry tale, but I very much hope that my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be able, through my noble friend this evening, to make a statement on the use of live vaccine and so help the poultry industry to get back once again on its feet and out of the real trouble in which, at the moment, this disease has placed it.

7.34 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ferrers has certainly done the poultry industry a great service in bringing this acute problem to the notice of your Lordships and the Government, for it is indeed a very serious one, and I should like to congratulate him on the clarity with which he has presented a very involved and difficult case. It is difficult to understand and to follow, but he has made it very much clearer.

Until August of this year the dead vaccination programme had contained this disease in England and Wales. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers said, it is necessary that 75 per cent. to 80 per cent. of the birds in the country must be vaccinated in order to give control. It is rather a long and involved story to explain how the Ministry get that figure of 80 per cent., but it is quite a sound figure scientifically for them to reach. In midsummer, however, this figure of vaccinated birds had fallen to as little as 53 per cent. There is the immediate root of the troubles with which we are faced now; but the long-distance reason why we are in trouble in the poultry industry now is that we have brought it on our own heads.

The Departmental Committee on fowl pest policy sat from 1960 to 1962 under the chairmanship of Sir Arnold Plant, and perhaps there is no more expert committee chairman than he, in many spheres of economics and commerce and industry. On this complicated subject this Committee produced a unanimous Report, and that is very significant. The Committee was not a large one, but it was composed of quite diverse persons. The main recommendation, and the one to which most space is devoted in the Report, is to this effect: We recommended that in the future the cost of compensation should be met by the poultry industry. We consider that the most satisfactory method of securing a contribution from the whole industry would be a levy on production of day-old chicks, turkey poults, ducklings and game chicks. We recommend a levy on hatchery turnover and, for this purpose, the registration of hatcheries. The Report also recommends the possibility that by this means there might be the financing of the vaccine and, in addition, a contribution made towards the cost of research.

Despite this clear and absolute recommendation, the principal recommendation indubitably of this Report, the Government of the day did not take it up. Whether they yielded to pressure from the industry or from the Farmers' Unions, or something like that I am afraid I do not know, but there must have been some reason why they did not take up such a strong recommendation. If the recommendation had been adopted, the proportion of unvaccinated birds would never have risen to the high point which it did last summer and which made this present outbreak virtually inevitable.

My noble friend was quite right when he described the nature of the present virus with which we are faced as being extremely virulent. It has changed from the one that was troubling us at the time the Committee was investigating the matter. It is not only a very virulent type but it is one which spreads easily. Formerly the more virulent types were not so infective. Now we have a combination of a virulent and infective type of virus, and we are facing a more lethal one than we have had in the past. That might in part account for the failure of the dead vaccine to which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred.

The situation about our vaccines as a result of the research work which has been done in the Ministry's laboratories by the veterinary researchers has also changed. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, noted, the vaccines have spread other diseases through the egg. We have had fowl paralysis spread through the live vaccine, infectious bronchitis and respiratory diseases. But now the live vaccines, thanks to the work of the veterinary investigators, are, so I understand, much safer to use. There is a method of using them which is perhaps in danger of catching the imagination of the industry: that is, spraying the birds with this live vaccine, or putting it into their drinking water. There are dangers if this policy is adopted, because one cannot ensure that every bird is immunised by such cheap means of administering the live vaccine. Too big a proportion of the birds are not immunised.

I would ask the Government whether it is not a possible solution to allow the use of the live vaccine in certain counties only for a limited period, say twelve months, and after that try again to contain the disease by the dead vaccine only. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred to the importation of broilers and other birds from other parts. At the present moment because the disease is not endemic in this country the health regulations do prohibit the importation of the carcases from countries in which the disease is endemic; that is to say, the United States of America and most European countries. If a live vaccine policy becomes general in England, there will be no argument for keeping out the carcases from other countries that are carrying the disease. That is the dilemma: either to have the additional cost to contain the disease in this country, or be prepared to face the hard truth that if frozen poultry are allowed to come in, both from America and elsewhere, the broiler industry will not merely be badly hit, it will be in grave danger of collapsing altogether.

It would not do if I were to get up and speak in your Lordships' House without mentioning the peculiar situation in Scotland. It is in this case the same with Northern Ireland. There we have a slaughter policy which has been left from previous times, as we were rather less open to infection than those counties of England which are open to the infection from the Continent. So long as Scotland buys dead birds from England, so long are we somewhat at risk, and indeed we have some outbreaks at the present moment. But the surprising thing is that during the last eight years Scotland has been relatively free of fowl pest, and it looks as though to a certain extent, with some exceptions, the present outbreaks in Scotland are the result of the dead birds which have been imported from England, or which turn up as swill. In these circumstances there is, therefore, I think, reason to continue in Scotland and Northern Ireland the present policy of slaughter and compensation; and consideration might perhaps be given to the extension of that policy to Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland and perhaps sonic other counties in the North of England.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has said that this is indeed a most serious situation, and the whole of this important industry, an industry that is essential to the welfare and the health of nearly everybody living on these islands, is in jeopardy. I should like to pay tribute to the work both of the veterinary surgeons who are working in the field and of those who are working in the laboratories. They have been doing a fine job. Great strides have been made since the Report came out in 1962. More knowledge has been discovered about the disease, and we are better able to combat it from the scientific angle. But I think veterinary surgeons would welcome a lead from the Government, to know fairly soon what policy it is proposed to adopt, because the present outbreak has brought us up against problems and we just cannot let them ride out—they will not. The whole industry is in jeopardy, and I hope it will not be long before a new and a positive policy can be handed down to the industry.

7.47 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we all thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for raising this matter, even though by our standards it is getting a little late. It seems to be a fact that this outbreak of fowl pest has not attracted the interest of the general public as did the plague of foot-and-mouth disease in 1967–68. Yet to those concerned it is clearly equally serious. The personal loss involved is just as great, and to see this disease spread constitutes an appalling tragedy. I am sure that what has been said both by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and by the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, about the veterinary services of the Ministry is absolutely justified, but what we want from the Minister who is to reply is an assurance that the whole resources of the Department are being mobilised in order to contain this outbreak.

I am not in a position to comment at all upon the merits of the dead or live vaccine, but the noble Earl has posed a number of very relevant questions which I hope are going to be answered this evening. I want simply to add this. The first step must be to contain this outbreak, but I think we are aware that this is an industry which has seen an enormous growth in a comparatively short space of time, and I am not at all certain that the conditions under which it has grown or the policy that has been directed towards the containment of disease is based on sufficient knowledge. I want to ask the Minister what steps are being taken to ensure, not simply that this outbreak is contained, but that we try to prevent another one in the future. Is there going to be a thorough-going inquiry into this? Shall we see some report afterwards which tries to find out how it all happened and whether any change of policy is required? I feel that this matter is so serious that some special steps ought to be taken.

7.50 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for detaining your Lordships at this late hour, but I should like to add a word or two to this debate. First of all, I should like to express my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for raising this debate and for his tribute to the veterinary service. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, because in my experience at the Ministry, which extended over a fair period, I can testify to the efficiency with which the veterinary service works. I remember the tremendous tributes paid to the veterinary service at the time of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in this country. At that time the Ministry called in the advice, work and labour of many vets. outside the Ministry altogether. They called for their support to help stem the tide of the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

As my noble friend on the Front Bench said, the same thing is happening with fowl pest as was happening with the brucellosis outbreak. I should like to know what other assistance has been called in, because the Department and its veterinary service must be strained to the very utmost. I should also like to ask what estimate the Ministry have made of the number of poultry that have had to be destroyed as the result of these outbreaks. The noble Earl who opened the debate mentioned figures of 7 to 8 million infected birds, and quoted cases where hundreds of thousands were dying even on particular farms or packaging stations. As I understand it, since August the number of outbreaks notified is nearing 2,000—about 1,950. If that is so, quite obviously outside assistance must be required to deal with the problem.

So far as Scotland is concerned, the policy is different because there you have the policy of slaughter and compensation. I understand—and the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that only five cases have been notified in Scotland in that period, as against 1,950 in the rest of the country. The number of birds that had to be slaughtered is about 5,340 and compensation of something under £4,000 had to be paid to meet that situation. One has to consider what is the correct policy for meeting this problem. We had this policy of dead vaccine, and it was interesting to hear the noble Earl say that even when birds had been vaccinated death was taking place. Apparently even vaccination has not given us the results that we had hoped for. If it is true that only 53 per cent. of the birds have been vaccinated, then obviously the field is wide open for a spread of the disease. That is one other problem that has to be tackled.

I understand that the Ministry have been carrying out tests on birds, inoculating them with live vaccines. If I remember correctly, there were three or four places designated in which this vaccination was taking place. I am certain that your Lordships will be interested to hear what the results are so far from these experiments. I know it is very tempting, and I can understand, when the disease reaches the dimensions that this one has, the noble Earl saying that perhaps we have or might have a probable cure for the disease with live vaccine, and that the Ministry should not take quite so long as they normally take to carry out this policy. It is not for me to defend the Ministry—they are well able to do that themselves—but they have to consider that if they pushed ahead with this new treatment by live vaccine and we then had repercussions that might be even greater than the disease, we should come along to your Lordships' House to tell the Ministry that they had no right to take action for which they did not have proof.

I should like to know, and I am certain that your Lordships would like to know, what estimate the Ministry have made of the number of birds that have died as the result of this disease. Also, what are the results from the tests that they are making? Further, we should like to know whether the Ministry can hold out any hope of these efforts meeting the situation. Lastly, we should like to know what policy the Government propose to pursue in future as a result of their investigations so far.

7.55 p.m.


My Lords, I also apologise for keeping your Lordships at this late hour, but before the Minister replies I have a few questions that I should like to ask. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, told us of the uncertainty regarding the efficiency of the dead vaccine system aid the possible breakdown of this system. I understand that there is widespread satisfaction within the industry over the decision to introduce field trials with the live vaccine. I understand also that it is felt that these trials are moving too slowly to combat the present particularly virulent type of outbreak.

The noble Lord, Lord Balerno, asked whether it would be possible for live vaccine to be made more readily available. I wonder if it could be made more readily available to reputable breeders within certain areas, and possibly for a limited period of time. They could then administer and experiment with other methods of inoculation under the direct supervision of the Ministry veterinary supervisors. But, according to my information, the present methods of administering this vaccine to the young chicks is not giving them the immediate and complete protection that is necessary. Other methods must be found, for, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said, there is a tremendously high mortality rate in the very young chicks, those up to two, or three or four weeks old. This is causing immense problems both to broiler producers and to the whole cycle of industry.

The ban on movement from infected areas has now been in operation for some two months or so. This is causing considerable hardship to all poultry keepers, especially to breeders and rearers of pullet replacements. I should like to ask the Minister whether it would be possible, if not to remove the ban on all properly vaccinated pullets, to extend the areas in order that the pullets may be more easily sold and disposed of. I know of breeders who have large numbers of these birds, reared under contract, and who now suddenly find that they have them all on their hands: they cannot move them. It is causing considerable financial loss, and also enormous management problems.

If it is impossible to extend the areas, could not a total ban be placed on the movement of birds, both in and out of the infected areas? It would appear that these breeders and rearers are labouring under the most unfair competition if birds are let in from free areas, thereby greatly accentuating their own difficulties. These producers are unable to move birds outside and can move them, under licence, only within the area. Surely it would work on a reciprocal basis, that the people who have contracted to sell birds into the area could take over the contracts of the people within the area. That is a little involved, but something like that could be worked out.

8.0 p.m.


My Lords, quite a number of noble Lords have spoken on this important subject from their great experience. If what I have to say does not entirely satisfy them, I should like to assure all noble Lords that my right honourable friend and his advisers will consider very carefully everything that has been said in the debate to-night. My noble friend Lord Ferrers covered a wide field in his speech and gave us all a very full account of the effects of the fowl pest epidemic on the poultry industry. I accept a great deal of what he has said about the serious nature of this epidemic. He has mentioned some of the difficulties of taking further action, and I shall be mentioning some more. But it may help if I start by outlining the basis of our present policy to control the disease.

The policy stems from the Report of the Committee, chaired by Professor Sir Arnold Plant, which reviewed our measures for control of fowl pest and reported in 1962. This Committee concluded that the policy of compulsory slaughter and compensation which was then in operation had failed to control the spread of the disease and was subject to other important objections. In particular it had entailed the unnecessary destruction of birds, many of which would otherwise have recovered from the disease, and this had caused disruption of the industry. Its cost has been extremely high, and it had placed an intolerable load on the Ministry's veterinary service. The Committee concluded that we should adopt a policy of control rather than eradication. The Government of the day accepted this recommendation and introduced a policy of voluntary vaccination by the industry in England and Wales, using an inactivated vaccine. Compulsory slaughter was retained only for the peracute form of the disease and fowl plague in England and Wales, and for all forms of fowl pest in Scotland, where the incidence of the disease was very low.

There can be no doubt, my Lords, that until last August this policy was an unqualified success. It had been estimated, as my noble friend has said, that to achieve satisfactory control of the disease not less than 75 per cent. of the national flock should be fully vaccinated. In the early days of the vaccination policy a large proportion of producers followed the Ministry's advice and vaccinated their flocks, and by 1965 it was estimated that about 80 per cent. of the national flock was then being regularly vaccinated.

This high level of vaccination continued until last year, and the effect on the number of outbreaks of the disease was impressive. From the 2,000 or more outbreaks commonly experienced in the years 1960 to 1964 the number of outbreaks fell to 495 in 1965, and gradually reduced still further, until in 1969 only 36 cases of the disease were notified in England and Wales. I believe that these figures speak for themselves. They convincingly justify the change of policy made in 1963, and they show the effectiveness of the inactivated vaccine when used properly and sufficiently widely.


My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend for a moment to ask whether he would say that the vaccine has been immensely successful when in fact there have been 495 outbreaks, albeit the number fell to 35 or 36 a year?


Yes, my Lords, I should say that if, over a period of years, the number of outbreaks reduces every time, this shows that the policy was successful. I think it is a fairly impressive drop from over 2,000 outbreaks to 36 in a matter of six or seven years.

Unfortunately, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers said, the success of this policy may have contributed to its undoing. In 1968 and 1969, producers began to ease up on their vaccination programmes. Some have said that this was due to complacency bred from the success of the policy. Others claim that producers took this means to make a saving on costs necessary because of tight margins. Whatever the reasons may have been, the fact was that by mid-1970 only half the national flock was vaccinated, and this was far below the level necessary for protection against the disease. There can be little doubt that the extent of the present epidemic can be attributed to this cause, and many expert veterinary surgeons consider that the epidemic would not have taken serious hold at all if the vaccination level had been higher.

The Ministry issued a number of warnings of the danger of failure to vaccinate, and an outbreak of the disease occurred in Kent in 1969, with a similar degree of virulence to the disease experienced in the current epidemic. In spite of these warnings, there was no significant rise in the level of vaccination. The incident in Kent was quickly brought under control, since it was in an area with a lower poultry population and the proportion of vaccinated birds was then much higher than it was in Essex when the disease struck again in August of this year.

The noble Earl made a comparison with vaccination against measles, but the situations are not analogous. No fowl pest vaccine is 100 per cent. effective, and the efficacy of the vaccine is bound to be reduced if there are numbers of unvaccinated flocks becoming infected and producing a high output or the virus. The sort of challenge which is consequently produced would be difficult for any vaccine fully to resist. As the noble Earl said, young birds are capable of only a limited response to vaccine, and broilers are, consequently, vulnerable. It is they, in particular, that need a high general level of protection in surrounding flocks. It has been fully demonstrated in this epidemic that the effect of the virus in most properly vaccinated adult and growing birds has been minimal. The vaccine, when given a proper chance, has effectively resisted the challenge.

I should emphasise that the disease being caused by the present virus is not the peracute, Asiatic, type. Repeated clinical inspections, postmortems and other tests have been and are being carried out by the Ministry, and it is quite clear that the virus—although it is virulent—is not the Asiatic type for which the Plant Committee recommended (and the Government of the day accepted) a slaughter policy.

The present epidemic began in Essex on August 25, and since then there have been 1,943 outbreaks of the disease. We have no evidence to suggest that producers are not informing the Ministry of outbreaks. The main areas in which the disease has been concentrated since then have been in Essex and the Eastern Counties, but it has spread to many other parts of the country and now involves 33 counties outside the present infected areas. I should like to express my sympathy to the many farmers whose flocks have been affected. This is a very serious matter for them, as I fully recognise.

Since the epidemic began, the Ministry have imposed infected area restrictions in the whole of East Anglia, including Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and have applied appropriate restrictions to the affected premises. Every opportunity has been taken to urge producers to vaccinate their flocks. Arrangements have been made with the vaccine manufacturers for supplies of inactivated vaccine to be greatly increased. The manufacturers have assured the Ministry that they are producing vaccine to their maximum capacity and are distributing it as speedily as possible. We understand that supplies of vaccine were greatly increased during October and are continuing at a much higher level than usual.

The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, asked me to assure him that all the Ministry's resources were being put into stopping this disease. The noble Lord, Lord Hoy, asked what other resources were being called in. Additional Ministry veterinary manpower has been allocated to areas affected by fowl pest, and special centres have been set up to assist producers in diagnosing and dealing with the disease. We have made full use of all the Ministry's resources, not just veterinary, and we are now making use of the private veterinary profession to augment our own service. Detailed advice is being given on methods of prevention and control, on the treatment of waste food, which can be an important agent in spreading the disease, and on safety precautions in poultry slaughterhouses and egg-packing stations. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have given most generous tribute to the Ministry's veterinary service, which I am sure has been very well earned.

On October 29 my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture announced that he was initiating a field trial of live Newcastle disease vaccine. This is being carried out under close Ministry control on selected farms in the infected areas of East Anglia. The purpose of the trial is to assess the efficacy of live vaccine in the present severe disease situation and in the conditions prevailing in the poultry industry in this country. One of the principal reasons for carrying out this trial is that in recent years there have been scientific and technical advances in the production of live vaccine which have eliminated some of the undesirable side effects formerly associated with it. It is now possible to produce live vaccine of a higher standard of purity than was the case a few years ago, and in consequence it is less likely to introduce other infections.

Nevertheless, the efficacy and side effects of the vaccine in our conditions are not known and need to be assessed in the field before any conclusions on it can be properly drawn. The trial is being carried out under the close control of the Ministry's veterinary officers, and the flocks which are being treated with the vaccine have been scientifically selected to ensure that the vaccine is given a rigorous test in a variety of conditions, including flocks of different sizes and types. The necessary supplies of vaccine have been obtained and the trial is now well under way, but it will be some weeks—we hope not as many as 12 weeks—before the results can be evaluated. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said that there should be no delay in bringing in this live vaccine. There are these other considerations, and although the Ministry will do as much as it can to bring the tests to a satisfactory point as quickly as possible, to go quicker than that would be to risk more serious trouble than before.


My Lords, I apologise for interrupting again. Is my noble friend saying that it will take less than 12 weeks to evaluate the results of the tests? And by that, does he mean that it will take less than 12 weeks for the Minister to make up his mind and to state what the future policy will be?


Yes, my Lords, that is what I meant. My noble friend wondered why this trial was being undertaken at this time. He will know that the industry is divided on the question of whether or not the general use of live vaccine should be approved. This reflects the fact that there are arguments for and against the live vaccine. It would be cheaper and easier to make and administer. Moreover, it might have advantages in giving somewhat quicker protection to very young birds than is achieved by the inactivated vaccine. But we do not know whether it would be any more effective in British conditions. It could well have adverse side effects, particularly in exacerbating latent infections, and it would reduce the effectiveness of our diagnostic and control measures. There is much, therefore, to be said on both sides. The field trials should permit the force of some of these arguments to be assessed more clearly and should consequently help to point the way to future action. We are testing it now because only now is it possible to give it a really rigorous trial in a disease situation in the field. There is little value in a field trial when there is no fowl pest about.

My right honourable friend has made it quite clear that he will not re-introduce compulsory slaughter with payment of compensation. I am afraid that I cannot even make an exception in the case of my noble friend's farm manager. This would provide no solution to the present problem, since it has been demonstrated in the past that compulsory slaughter has failed to control the spread of the disease. Moreover it would conflict with the present policy of protection by vaccination, since the compensation would diminish the incentive to many producers to vaccinate.

My noble friend Lord Balerno suggested that the industry should pay a levy on day-old chicks to finance the cost of vaccine. This was not the chief recommendation of the Plant Report. The chief recommendation was that the policy of voluntary vaccination should replace that of slaughter and compensation. My noble friend also suggested that the Government should distribute the vaccine free of charge and the industry would have to finance only the process of vaccination. I can see the purpose of my noble friend's suggestion, but I am bound to say that it has its drawbacks. It is very difficult to see how this could be administered, especially in view of the large number of flocks in this country and the need for repetition of doses. But probably the main objection is that it would not achieve the purpose intended. The principal disincentive to vaccination is not the cost of the vaccine but the cost of the labour needed to administer it and the inconvenience and upheaval caused by having vaccine administered to a large number of birds. The scheme envisaged by my noble friend would do nothing to reduce this.

The noble Lord, Lord Hoy, asked what were the results so far of the field trials of live vaccine. We are pressing on with these trials as quickly as we possibly can, but I am afraid that at the moment it is too early to give any results. He also asked for the number of birds slaughtered as a result of this disease, but I am afraid I do not have information on the number of deaths. The number of birds in infected flocks is about 12 million and the number of deaths is undoubtedly considerably smaller than that. The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, asked whether there would be an inquiry into this epidemic. I am afraid that I cannot answer him about that, but I can assure him that we will look into this epidemic very carefully indeed and make sure that we learn all we can from it for the future.

The best hope of bringing the present epidemic to an end and getting the disease under control once more is for producers to vaccinate their flocks quickly and properly. As I have said, no vaccine can give full protection to young birds, but in properly vaccinated adult and growing birds the record of the inactivated vaccine is excellent. Less than 10 per cent. of the flocks affected in the current epidemic have been properly vaccinated. The output of virus in unvaccinated and poorly vaccinated infected flocks is very high, and we must increase vaccination and dowse infection at its source if we are to get the epidemic under control. This is the further action that is necessary. The Government will do all they can to encourage the industry to take that action.