A new, virulent strain of E coli has broken out across Europe, killing 17 and leaving more that 1,500 people ill. It is thought that the source of the outbreak is Germany, where three British nationals have been infected as well as four Germans in the UK.
It is thought that the source of the outbreak is vegetables, and the German farming industry has been severely hit as a result.
The HPA is leading the Government’s efforts on comms around the outbreak, and has issued a statement that there is no evidence of suspect produce being distributed in the UK.
The press is being handled by the HPA’s press office of five, with HPA director of comms Lis Birrane explaining that they are ‘well-rehearsed’.
‘We’re dealing with all kinds of public health issues and these are familiar operations,’ she added.
‘I think its natural that people become anxious when a source hasn’t been identified. There are general precautionary steps people can take. The FSA has been very clear that there hasn’t been an imported source in this country. We’ve been very clear that the cases we’ve seen are in returning travellers.
‘We ensure it’s very prominent in every briefing we’ve given.’
A press release issued yesterday by the HPA focuses on the health threat to UK travellers to Germany, and hammers home the message that there have been no outbreaks in the UK.
The release read: ‘The Food Standards Agency has confirmed that they are working closely with industry trade bodies, wholesalers and retailers, and have found no evidence that produce from possible sources identified so far has been distributed to the UK.’
Red Consultancy head of healthcare Pat Pearson said that the government’s response had been ‘so far, so good.’
‘Stories like this have a habit of creating their own momentum. Reading some of the tabloid headlines you would think the UK was in the grips of a public health emergency.
‘It's certainly serious, but the HPA are out there providing factual advice to shoppers and people travelling to Germany. The HPA are the right people to do that - they're the expert agency and what the Government won't want to do is to escalate the profile of the story by getting ministers or other senior people involved in communication. At the moment, it's a German problem, and solid, factual advice from the experts is the right strategy.’
Westminster University visiting professor of public relations Trevor Morris added: ‘The government is in an unenviable position. They have to be careful not to create panic and not to damage businesses by jumping to conclusions about the source of the outbreak and yet the public want guidance and reassurance.
‘At the moment they seem to have got the balance right, but the communication requirements will need monitoring by the hour.'