Shadow environment secretary Peter Ainsworth has recommended that plans to try out contingency planning measures in April should be brought forward, with testing carried out 'as a matter of urgency'.
As the nation awaits the results of tests carried out on nine British swans which died over the weekend, he said: 'The government has said that they have adequate contingency plans in the event of the disease being found in the UK. However, they have not scheduled a trial of their plans until April. Since there is no point in testing a contingency after the event, and the arrival of bird flu could be imminent, they should bring forward trial as a matter of urgency.'
Mr Ainsworth added: 'Large scale poultry farmers already have bio-security arrangements in place. There is a potentially greater problem with the hundreds of thousands of small scale, often non-commercial chicken owners. Their whereabouts are not known. The government is introducing a voluntary registration scheme, and should have done so already. We urge owners of poultry to register with this scheme, and to seek advice from the DEFRA website.
'Any temptation to panic is fuelled by a lack of adequate information. We urge the government to undertake a major public information exercise, so that all poultry owners will know exactly what they will need to do in the event of an outbreak, and the public at large can be reassured about continuing to buy British chickens.'
'In its present form avian flu is a bird disease, which only in rare and exceptional cases can be caught by humans. It does not spread like foot and mouth among the animal population.'
Then, commenting on the latest scientific recommendations that all poultry keepers should lock up their birds now to prevent a bird-flu outbreak, Mr Ainsworth stated: 'Given the latest warnings from scientists, we need to work on the assumption that the disease will arrive in the UK, if it has not already done so.
'The government needs to tell people what measures to take now if they are chicken owners, poultry producers or consumers. An urgent national public information campaign is required.'
The Conservatives spokesman said: 'The government particularly needs to clear up confusion over whether or not poultry keepers should lock up their birds, as some experts have suggested today. 'For the majority of large scale commercial poultry farmers who have bio-security plans in place, this should not prove a problem. However, it is likely that there are many thousands of poultry owners who will find it hard to house their chickens in secure locations. People need clear guidance from the government as to what to do.'