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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 23/10/2005)


This latest health scare could wipe out millions… of pounds

Led by the BBC, Channel Four News and the Daily Mail, the media have done their best to whip up the scare over Asian bird flu. They have, of course, been assisted by claims such as that from our Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, that, if the virus transfers to humans, 50,000 Britons could die, and from a senior official of the World Health Organisation that there could be up to 150 million deaths worldwide.

On Friday the scare was brought to a higher pitch by reports that the "lethal H5 strain" of the virus has reached Britain, via a now-dead South American parrot. In fact this is so vague as to be meaningless. Millions of birds in Britain have been exposed to the "H5 strain". Even the more precise term "H5N1" does not name a distinct virus but a group of linked sub-types, only one of which has so far proved lethal to humans - and that has never been identified outside Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam.

The H5N1 group has been around in densely populated areas of east Asia for at least 10 years; and, contrary to popular misconception, the tendency of viruses is not to become more virulent but the opposite (for the sound evolutionary reason that it hardly promotes survival to kill off your host).

In short, the evidence suggests that there is no more chance of millions of Europeans dying from this virus than there was of people dying from eating T-bone steaks when our Government banned them a few years back. Asian bird flu joins that ever-lengthening list of scares which provoke hysterical excitement, but are eventually found to be scientifically baseless.

This is why such scares have been a regular theme of this column over the past 15 years (and why, with my co-author Dr Richard North, I am shortly to write a book on the phenomenon). Of course the grand-daddy (perhaps, in honour of Edwina Currie, it should be grand-mummy) of modern scares was "salmonella in eggs" in 1988. Only four years later did a government report concede that it had been based on a complete misreading of the evidence.

In 1996, when the media were predicting that, by now, millions would be dying of CJD from eating BSE-infected beef, this column was almost alone in pointing out that, on epidemiological evidence, there seemed to be no connection between CJD and beef. This has now been confirmed by the incidence curve dropping almost to zero (total deaths 157). As for the eventual revelation that the Belgian dioxin scare in 1999 had posed no threat to human health, this finding was reported here and nowhere else.

The problem with these scares is that they exact such a cost. The "salmonella in eggs" fantasy forced 5,000 small egg producers into bankruptcy. The BSE in beef scare cost taxpayers £4 billion for the destruction of millions of cattle that would have been perfectly safe to eat. The dioxin hysteria cost Belgium's economy £1 billion. The panic over white asbestos cement, never linked scientifically to a single death, is costing billions in unnecessary building works and unfounded compensation claims.

What makes all these examples so remarkable is the consistency of their pattern. The initial hysteria, whipped up by gullible politicians and journalists, produces a deluge of headlines. By the time it emerges that this was based on a complete misreading of the scientific evidence, no one is interested. And by then the damage has been done.

The undertaker dare not speak his name

The House of Lords is shortly to consider the surreal case of Richard Adlem, the respected undertaker of a Dorset village, who, since a ruling by the Court of Appeal, has been forbidden to trade under his own name, to tell people what he does for a living or even to give his name when answering the telephone. This curious saga, as I reported in August, arose when a former protégé of Mr Adlem sold his share of the business, in the village of Sixpenny Handley, to Newman's, a large firm of funeral directors in nearby Salisbury.

Newman's assumed that this gave them the right to use Mr Adlem's name. Although they eventually had to agree that use of his name had never been included in the contract, their solicitors told him he could no longer trade as himself, as he had been doing for 30 years. But a High Court judge, an expert in the law on "passing off" (the legal term for using a name to which one is not entitled), found unreservedly for Mr Adlem.

Newman's then appealed, however, and two Appeal Court judges, led by Lord Justice Jacob, found in the firm's favour. This was despite a trenchant minority opinion to the contrary from the third judge, who is herself, like Jacob, an expert on "passing off".

Mr Adlem, who had by now spent £250,000 on legal costs, was bombarded with demands from Newman's solicitors that he must stop using his own name, stating that only Newman's were now allowed to use it. Through his MP, Mr Adlem lodged a complaint with the Lord Chancellor that Lord Justice Jacob had shown "prejudice" in his conduct of the appeal.

Lord Falconer has now replied, saying that such issues are not his concern and that to decide whether a judge has acted prejudicially, or is likely to do so, must be left to the judge in question, or another court.

In 2001, the last year for which figures are available, only three of 2,100 complaints against judges were upheld. (And from April next year, as announced by Tony Blair, it will not even be permitted to publicly name the judges complained against.)

Mr Adlem is now looking at a further £25,000 bill simply to have the Lords decide whether they are prepared to rule on the case (for which he must supply 15 specially-bound copies of every document cited, which amount to more than 2,000 pages). Meanwhile it remains an offence for him even to give the caller his name when he is rung at home.

They don't give a hoot for local views

The announcement last week by Malcom Wicks, the energy minister, that a giant wind farm on Romney Marsh in Kent could go ahead, has sent shock waves across the land. The 26 2.5-megawatt turbines proposed by the German-owned nPower for one of the most romantic and unspoiled landscapes in southern England were opposed by every elected authority in the area, including two county councils, two district councils and 12 parish councils; not to mention English Nature, the RSPB and a host of environmentalists.

The 370ft turbines, visible from 20 miles, will cover 1,000 acres of marshland, next to a famous bird reserve, requiring concrete foundations sunk 110 feet into the earth and six and a half miles of new roads, using 50,000 tons of roadstone. But so determined is Malcom Wicks's Department for Trade and Industry to meet its EU target of 10 per cent of energy from "renewable" sources by 2010 that the DTI used an obscure provision of the 1989 Electricity Act to call in the Romney Marsh scheme for decision by a DTI inspector.

The inspector was apparently not troubled by charges that the developers had made wildly misleading claims for their project (both the leader of East Sussex county council and Richard Hartley QC called these "lies").

More significantly, however, he made no attempt to address the argument that the 26 turbines will achieve no net savings in carbon dioxide emissions (because conventional power stations will have to be kept running to cover the three-quarters of the time when the turbines, through inappropriate wind speeds, are not generating); and that they are only viable because their operators will receive £9 million a year in hidden subsidies, paid through inflated electricity bills, on top of the £5 million they will get from selling the electricity itself.

The significance of the Romney Marsh decision (announced by Mr Wicks at a meeting of the British Wind Energy Association, the chief lobbyists for the "Great Wind Scam") is that it flags up the Government's determination to force through thousands more turbines - regardless of planning rules or the wishes of local communities - even though they serve no useful purpose, cost us all a fortune and represent one of the most shameless confidence tricks of our time.

Don't mention bushmen

The tragedy of the Kalahari bushmen is nearing its end. In the past month, the Botswanan government has turned to open violence against the handful of bushmen who have tried to return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, set up by the British in 1961 as a haven for the last bushmen surviving in the wild and guaranteed under Botswana's constitition.

Bushmen have been fired on by police, and several of them wounded, including a seven-year-old boy. Their huts have been burned. Their leaders have been arrested. Botswana's government is confident it can get away with such conduct, because its policy of evicting the bushmen from their ancestral homeland has been endorsed by our Foreign Office since 1996, and latterly by the European Union.

The bushmen's plight has been tirelessly brought to wider attention by Survival International, 25 of whose supporters staged a demonstration nine days ago at the Oxford Union when it hosted a meeting addressed by Botswana's president Festus Mogae, himself an Oxford graduate. It was perhaps tactless of them to wear T-shirts reading "Botswana Police Shoot Bushmen".

But when some asked critical questions, burly security men moved in to give them the Walter Wolfgang treatment. Survival's director Stephen Corry, one of those evicted, wryly noted the Union's boast on its website that it stands for "diversity, outspokenness and the free exchange of ideas".