Mass graves planned if bird flu pandemic reaches Britain
Mass burials are being considered by the Home Office as part of contingency plans for a possible avian flu pandemic.
A "prudent worst case" assessment suggested that 320,000 could die in Britain if the H5N1 virus mutated into a form contagious between humans, according to a confidential report.
The paper - said to have been discussed by a Cabinet committee - said that the huge number of deaths would lead to delays of up to 17 weeks in burying or cremating victims. It warned that the prospect of "common burial" would stir up images of the mass pits used to bury victims of the Great Plague in 1665.
"It might involve a large number of coffins buried in the same place at the same time, in such a way that allowed for individual graves to be marked," said the report.
Town halls could deal with what it termed a "base case" of 48,000 deaths in England and Wales during a 15-week pandemic.
"Even with ramping local management capacity by 100 per cent, the prudent worst case of 320,000 excess deaths is projected to lead to a delay of some 17 weeks from death to burial or cremation."
Should the outbreak kill 2.5 per cent of those who contract the flu, it warns, "no matter what emergency arrangements are put in place there are likely to be substantially more deaths than can be managed within current time-scales". The report, Managing Excess Deaths in an Influenza Pandemic, is dated March 22 and says that a vaccine would not be available at least for "the first wave" of a pandemic.
The report was apparently discussed last week in Cabinet sub-committee MISC 32, chaired by Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, reports The Sunday Times. A Home Office spokesman refused to comment on the report or whether it had been discussed.
He said: "The Government is taking very seriously the possible threat of an influenza pandemic. Prudent precautionary planning is under way across all elements of the response, including the NHS other essential services and local authorities."
There have already been warnings that public services would be unable to cope with a bird flu pandemic. Intensive care units would collapse under the extra demand, claims Richard Marsh, a critical care specialist at Northampton General Hospital.
In an article in the British Medical Journal, he said that if an outbreak was similar to those in Asia, a typical large district hospital would need to find 30 extra beds for patients with respiratory failure.
"This is between four and five times the number of intensive care beds available in most general hospitals. We are unlikely to be able to mobilise the equipment and staff to achieve such a temporary increase in provision."
It has been reported that GP surgeries have been put on alert to look for patients with bird flu-like symptoms, who may have come in contact with sickly birds. Previously, doctors had been told only to screen foreigners from "at-risk" countries who had come into contact with poultry.
Despite such concerns, the Department of Health has made the decision not to launch a public information campaign on the possible spread of bird flu because of fears that it would cause "panic".
The Government announced recently that it had awarded contracts worth £33 million to British companies to make 3.5 million doses of a vaccine to protect humans against the H5N1 strain.
The latest bird flu death was in Indonesia, which has confirmed its 23rd human fatality. The victim was a one-year-old girl, who died in Jakarta last week. An outbreak last month in Azerbaijan killed five young people.
In February it was discovered that the H5N1 virus had struck a turkey farm in south-east France, bringing closer the spectre of an outbreak in Britain.
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