Charlie Whelan: Govt needs a tsar to tackle bird flu crisis

What with all the hype and hysteria over bird flu, you could be forgiven for not knowing that only a tiny number of people have actually died from it. In fact, the death toll worldwide is just 91.

But, in the best traditions of British journalism, the media have taken the attitude:  why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

At the beginning of this week most newspapers led on the news of a dead swan in France and were already sharpening knives to plunge into the Government – for 'not taking bird flu seriously enough'. True to form, The Sun used the tale to put the boot into French farmers.

Either way, it now looks disastrous for Tony Blair to simply bury his head in the sand. The government simply has to pretend there is a real crisis, go on the PR offensive and show it is in control.

The early signs are not good. Last weekend, instead of dragging John Reid around the TV studios, in a doomed bid to improve the image of British squaddies, the government should have been telling us exactly what it is going to do about bird flu.

It should have taken decisive action including the appointment of a senior cabinet minister to co-ordinate the fight against the disease, or Blair should have taken personal control. Animal welfare minister Ben Bradshaw may be good at talking to anglers and dog lovers, but he is hardly likely to reassure the public at large.

The Government should also have ordered all hens indoors, rather than waiting for the first dead bird to appear. Opposition from the farmers shouldn't be a consideration, because history tells us they are not the ones the country will blame when a crisis takes hold.

Yes, the 'blame game' is all important, as Mr Blair knows only too well. He saw the damage the BSE crisis did to the last Tory government.

In fact during the last animal health crisis, foot and mouth, his government got blamed, even though the real cause of the spread of the disease was greedy farmers moving livestock around the country to buy and sell at huge profits. 

My last piece of advice to Blair is to get close to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The British public tend to care a lot more about fluffy things that fly than human beings, which is why the RSPB is one of Britain's richest charities.

The RSPB clearly has a brilliant PR team to achieve such a feat, so maybe they could teach the Government a trick or two on dealing with bird flu, especially when the birds eventually have to be culled.

charlie.whelan@haynet.com

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