Defra bolsters comms as avian flu nears UK shores

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has brought in a new head of strategic communications as it prepares for a potential epidemic of avian flu .

Department for Transport  head of transport publicity Jo Rushton took up the role this week as Defra prepares to tackle a virus that – in the worst-case scenario for industry – could destroy Britain's poultry sector.

The media and scientific community have accused the Government of not taking the bird flu threat seriously enough.

The H5N1 virus is edging nearer to UK shores, with the closest case 400 miles away in France as PRWeek went to press.

Fewer than 100 people have been killed so far, all in Asia and Turkey, and the virus has yet to spread between humans. However, if it mutates it is estimated the virus will affect a quarter of the working population and 90 per cent of schoolchildren in the UK.

Defra will also try to boost consumer confidence and communicate that eating UK poultry is safe.

In addition to bird flu, Rushton will advise on climate change, waste, sustainable energy, rural housing and services. She will manage a team of 20 covering campaigns, events and publications.

Rushton arrives after two years at the DfT where she ran the flagship 'Think!' road safety campaign.

Reporting to director of comms Yasmin Diamond, she takes over from former deputy director of comms Kelly Freeman.

The latter left earlier this year for the top comms role at the newly formed Serious and Organised Crime Agency – dubbed the UK's equivalent of the FBI (PRWeek, 3 February).

Defra plans to streamline its comms team in line with civil service reform but it is not yet known how many jobs will be affected, said a press office spokesman.

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