Mike Granatt: Public need central resource on bird flu

As avian flu captures the headlines, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) can expect some major communications challenges.

The management of public anxiety is in many ways as important to the handling of the crisis as the effective management of the disease on the ground.

Above all, the Government must show it has learned the lessons of the foot-and-mouth crisis and the failures of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF).

The early days of foot-and-mouth were handled by MAFF alone. It
did an excellent job with specialist correspondents and learned much about reaching individual farmers – but the only message for the general public was 'the countryside is closed – keep out'. It was a disaster. Tourism accounts for 80 per cent of the rural economy, six times greater than farming. And inbound tourism is our second biggest export. Even when co-ordination moved to the Cabinet Office, it took vital days to realise what damage was being done.

Today, Defra's remit for the whole rural economy should drive a broader and more effective approach. It should be helped by better procedures for national and local co-ordination, developed by the Cabinet Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Even so, responsibility for tourism still lies with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, health issues are with the Department of Health and its agencies, food safety is with the Food Standards Agency, and so on. There is no single resource to bring the information together for the public, and pick up other issues connected in the public's mind such as a possible human pandemic.

Not so in the US. Visit www.pandemicflu.gov. It is simple, clear and focused on its audiences.

If Washington can do it, surely we can.

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