Politics

Scottish ministers planned school shutdown against bird flu pandemic

Pandemic planning and Scottish ministers’ fears about bird flu have been revealed in newly released cabinet papers.

Minutes and briefings from 2006 show that the Labour-LibDem coalition led by then First Minister Jack McConnell, held extensive discussions about how to respond to a pandemic, prompted by fears about avian flu.

Ministers considered shutting schools to protect children if avian flu became a pandemic, according to files made public after 15 years.

Other parallels to the Covid crisis include a push for those deemed most at risk – in this case, poultry workers – to get an annual flu vaccination.

In February 2006 the UK Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended jags “to minimise the theoretical public health risk of avian flu mixing with seasonal flu and possibly mutating into a pandemic flu strain”.

Public health experts were “closely monitoring” the spread of bird flu at the start of 2006 following an outbreak in Turkey and deaths in Asia.

The H5N1 strain of the avian influenza virus is known to have infected 861 humans, with 455 deaths, between 2003 and May last year, according to the World Health Organisation.

With fears growing in the UK, Scottish ministers discussed “well-developed contingency plans” if Scots became infected.

On school closures, ministers heard “few, if any, factors are likely to make it tolerable to knowingly expose children to avoidable, serious risk.”

When a dead swan infected with the feared H5N1 avian flu strain was found in Cellardyke, Fife, in March, LibDem environment minister Ross Finnie complained about a “considerable overreaction to the incident” by the media.

He said it had created a “disproportionate sense of crisis” and frustrated the “communication of some key messages”.

In a hint at censorship, the cabinet said in future there should be “strategies for responding to the potential of the media to generate panic or civil disobedience”.

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