SHOCKING failings in Scotland's preparations for dealing with an outbreak of bird flu have been laid bare in a report on the handling of the crisis sparked when a swan carrying the disease washed up on the Fife coast last year.
An internal 'debriefing' document obtained by Scotland on Sunday has revealed a series of shortcomings in the response to the emergency, beginning with the incorrect identification of the stricken bird and a day's delay in getting the crisis operation off the ground.
It goes on to catalogue failings in areas ranging from organisation and communications to the entire health-protection operation established to guide and reassure the public.
The problems encountered when dealing with the impact of a single diseased bird raise serious concerns over the nation's ability to cope with a mass outbreak similar to the one that crippled the Bernard Matthews plant in Norfolk last month.
Scotland's public health authorities were criticised last year over the eight-day delay in confirming that a dead swan found lying on the harbour slipway at Cellardyke last March had been suffering from the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus.
But the 'Fife Avian Influenza Incident - Debriefing Report', compiled by Health Protection Scotland (HPS) after consultation with a range of health and emergency organisations involved in the Scottish incident, reveals the full scale of the organisational problems.
The seven-page document lists a series of failings, including the following:
• Expert vets mistook the dead whooper swan for a mute swan, which is native to Scotland;
• The delay in experts alerting authorities to a potential bird flu incident - meaning that the huge public health response wasn't mounted until a day late;
• The failure to activate the HPS's Major Incident Plan;
• Organisational failings, meaning the crisis team didn't have a board room from which they could direct the operation. Technical failures left a number of people out of key meetings held via teleconference links;
• Problems in communicating crucial information to key organisations - for example, health agencies didn't know the bird had been confirmed as H5N1 until they saw a newsflash on BBC News 24;
• Officials did not know where and how to handle crucial follow-up blood samples from those at risk of infection through contact with the swan;
• Chaos caused by too many official organisations providing the public with information on the disease, as well as the inconsistency of that advice.
The public health authorities charged with managing Scotland's bird flu crisis faced criticism in the weeks immediately after the swan was found, over a series of delays at a time when speed of action was at a premium.
Experts and Cellardyke residents registered their concern that the bird was allowed to remain in the village for several days.
St Andrews University technician Tina Briscoe, who contacted police after spotting the dead bird - which had already been partly eaten by other animals - was first told to ring the RSPCA.
She said: "I would have expected a quicker reaction, particularly because in the tidal water it could have been washed away or cats could have picked on it."