The first case of bluetongue ever to be recorded in Britain was confirmed on Saturday, 22 September on a farm near Ipswich in Suffolk. Since then several further cases have been detected on a number of other premises in England. The strain has been confirmed as serotype 8, the same strain as has been circulating in northern Europe since August 2006.
On 28 September, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Britain confirmed an outbreak of bluetongue and immediately put in place the control measures required by Council Directive 2000/75/EC. As a result of the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain, there is already a ban on the importation from Britain of live animals.
There are no imports of susceptible livestock from restricted areas in Europe and all susceptible species imported from bluetongue-free areas, apart from the UK, are tested post-import and all have been negative for the disease. In view of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, FMD, exports of livestock from Britain are currently banned. If and when the FMD-related export restrictions on British animals are lifted, consideration will be given to introducing post-import tests on susceptible animals coming from Britain.
Following the outbreaks of bluetongue in northern Europe, which began in August 2006, my Department embarked on a proactive surveillance programme that involved post-import blood testing of susceptible animals from affected countries and the random sampling of herds in counties in the south and south east in which wind-blown midges might have made landfall, if blown here. In addition to the ongoing testing of animals from bluetongue-free areas in Europe, my Department has engaged the Department of Zoology at NUI Galway to assist in carrying out a comprehensive surveillance survey of the midges that potentially spread the virus. In addition, my Department's laboratory service has been testing thousands of blood samples for evidence of bluetongue since earlier this year. My Department has also updated its contingency plans and legislative basis, and has increased awareness by providing advice leaflets for farmers and veterinary professionals as well as having organised an industry seminar on the disease in July.
The day-to-day management of the disease threat and the contingency arrangements is undertaken by the management committee of my Department's national disease control centre, which has available to it a range of expert veterinary and scientific advice. This committee, whose meetings I have regularly chaired, has been meeting frequently in response to the heightened disease threats posed by both FMD and bluetongue.
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The use of an outside advisory group with a range of disciplines is also part of my Department's contingency plan. This approach was used in relation to FMD and avian flu in the past. Responsibility for taking decisions on the appropriate contingency arrangements to be applied would continue to be mine and that of my Department.
There is also a commitment in the programme for Government to establish Biosecurity Ireland, as a separate division within my Department, whose remit will be to "ensure the exclusion, eradication or effective management of risks posed by diseases and pests to the economy, the environment and to human and animal health". This will enable my Department to co-ordinate even more effectively the existing breadth of expertise already available. As with all commitments in the programme, work on its implementation is continuing and I expect that it will be significantly progressed in the coming months.
I emphasise, however, that I am absolutely satisfied the measures introduced to date have been taken on proper veterinary and scientific advice and that they are proportionate to the current risk. As that risk is reassessed, I will not hesitate to introduce such additional measures as are considered appropriate to any increased risk.