Britain must improve its contingency planning for a possible bird flu outbreak and give greater support to global efforts to prevent a pandemic, a parliamentary committee said yesterday.

Experts say a flu pandemic among humans could kill millions around the globe and cause major economic losses. The deadly H5N1 virus is endemic in poultry in parts of Asia where it has killed 71 people since late 2003.

The committee said Britain should contribute more to improve surveillance of avian flu in Asia and ensure a rapid response to an outbreak of a new virus strain to prevent it spreading.

It also said Britain should urgently look at how antiviral drugs can best be used, revise its purchasing policy and provide more detailed guidance for health workers.

"A flu pandemic looks likelier now than at any time since the 1960s," said Lord Broers, chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, which has no power to force the government to act.

"But it's not inevitable and with coordinated international action it can still be prevented. The government must put its weight behind UN agencies working in south east Asia."

He said Britain had a head start on many countries in contingency planning.

"But the government could still do better, both by issuing fuller guidance to frontline health workers and by protecting essential services such as food distribution networks," he said.

He suggested the creation of a cabinet-level post with responsibility for contingency planning.

The report also warned that local health services could collapse under the strain and recommended that the government accelerate vaccine production and possibly even encourage manufacturers to invest in new technology.

Britain should also provide cash, staff and technical expertise to boost its "half-hearted" backing of international efforts to fight a possible pandemic, said Lord Broers.

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