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Britain's elite get pills to survive bird flu

London Times | August 29 2005

MEMBERS of Britain’s elite have been selected as priority cases to receive scarce pills and vaccinations at the taxpayers’ expense if the country is hit by a deadly bird flu outbreak.

Workers at the BBC and prominent politicians — such as cabinet ministers — would be offered protection from the virus.

Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, has already spent £1m to make sure his personal office and employees have their own emergency supplies of 100,000 antiviral tablets.

If there is an avian flu pandemic in the coming months there would be enough drugs to protect less than 2% of the British population for a week.

The Department of Health has drawn up a priority list of those who would be first to receive lifesaving drugs. Top of the list are health workers followed by those in key public sector jobs.

Although senior government ministers would be among the high-priority cases, the department said this weekend that it had not decided whether to include opposition politicians.

BBC employees would be protected because the corporation is required to broadcast vital information during a national disaster.

Politicians and the media have been placed before sick patients, heavily pregnant women and elderly people by government planners.

Yesterday, leading BBC presenters were surprised to learn that they would be given preferential treatment. Jeff Randall, the BBC’s business editor, said: “Are you really telling me that I am on a priority list for bird flu jabs? Marvellous. I always knew there would be an advantage from working at the BBC.”

John Humphrys, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said: “I think if I were offered the jab I would probably pass it on to someone 40 years younger than me.”

Nick Clarke, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s World at One, said: “I’m sure I wouldn’t qualify. My programme has news and comment and the one thing you can do without in a pandemic is comment . . . They would want to have Huw Edwards and reassuring newsreaders on radio.”

Fears that a “doomsday” virus may sweep the world have been heightened by the recent spread of the lethal strain of avian flu, H5N1. The death toll, estimated at 120, has been of people whose work brought them into close contact with infected birds. Scientists have warned that millions could die if H5N1 mutates.

The Department of Health would not currently be able to cope with such an onslaught. Although it has ordered 14.6m doses of Tamiflu, an antiviral drug thought to be effective against the H5N1 strain, only 900,000 doses are in stock so far. The full supply will not be delivered until March 2007, at a total cost of about £100m.

Besides the NHS and BBC, firemen, police and the armed forces are among those listed in the two top-priority groups to receive the vaccine.

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