Most of my friends, and most of the blogs I read, successfully avoided making a comment on the non-story that was Celebrity Big Brother last month. I kind of hoped the same thing would be the case for the ridiculousness that is Bird Flu Panic - the mainstream media get shouty, but among ourselves, we're not too bothered. No such luck. I realised I had to make some sort of comment on the matter when a friend of mine from the Darlington area contacted me to gleefully inform me of his plans to purchase a chicken and drive around with it in his car, just because he could. Or more to the point, because I can't, as I am within the exclusion zone.
The media is making every effort it can to scare us about the bird-flu thing. Can you imagine another situation where "man has a bit of a cold" in the UK in early February would turn into headline news on the front page of news.bbc.co.uk?
Taking it even further was 103.4 The Beach, which is the only radio station with a decent signal on this outlying edge of the country. Their website asks:
Bird flu is reported at Bernard Matthews in Halesworth. Are you concerned?
-Yes - especially as this has claimed human lives overseas
-Only for those workers who have come into contact with them
-No - the officials say there is nothing to fear and I trust them
That's leading enough - and no option for "I'm not scared because I actually have my own opinions" - however the announcer Pip and I heard the other day was phrasing it more along the lines of:
"Are you concerned about bird flu? Do you think that only workers in the industry are at risk? Or perhaps (voice changes to tone of utter disbelief) you ACTUALLY believe everything the so-called experts are saying and that there really is nothing to worry about?!?" We ended up shouting at the radio. It seems like they are trying to create a panic.
Personally, I'm not really worried at all about bird-flu as a health issue. Regular normal seasonal flu kills plenty more people, as do a hundred other illnesses. I do not own any chickens and I wasn't planning on visiting any farms. Any chicken I eat is properly prepared and thoroughly cooked anyway. (If, after saying that, I do happen to die horribly of H5N1, then you may all dance on my grave shouting "told you so!" However I will not be held responsible if my ghost infects those who do this).
BUT I am worried about bird flu in an economic and social sense. You see, Bernard Matthews is pretty much THE biggest employer around here. Then there's about half a dozen other factories dealing wholly or partially with chicken. Not to mention the farms. It's a big industry here.
When we had the BSE hoo-ha, a lot of people stopped eating British beef. Some stopped eating beef altogether, others bought imported beef. Supermarkets stopped stocking British beef altogether for a time. Farms were crippled.
If the media continues to try and upset the public over bird flu, the poultry industry is likely to feel the same effects. Less demand for chicken and turkey. Imports being preferred over the British produce. Mr Matthews won't need to run his UK factory at full capacity. He might decide to begin moving ops abroad. I asked a friend of a friend, who used to work there, what he thought. Here's what I was told, I've tried to be accurate although bear in mind it's not an exact quote as I don't often tape discussions with people. ;)
"The company themselves don't really have that many employees at a factory-floor level. They get people via agencies on really short contracts that usually get renewed so long as the person wants to work there. Usually a contract is four weeks. If the factory doesn't need to run at full capacity, they don't need to sack people and deal with all the redundancy stuff. Remember, the workers aren't employees of BM. They're being provided by the agencies, and it's the agencies who deal with the contracts. So one month, an agency might have 100 BM contracts available. The next month, they have 90 contracts available. But no one's been "sacked". Of course, there's a pretty high turnover of staff - people get better jobs or leave because of illness, maternity, whatever - so the little fluctuations aren't really noticed. But if there's anything big, or if the factory closes completely, a lot of people are going to be utterly screwed."
Disclaimer: That is not an official Bernard Matthews statement. It is simply the paraphrased opinion of someone who no longer works there, of what he percieved the situation to be when he did work there, and how he thinks things might pan out. For official Bernard Matthews statements, see their website.
For now, I think if I worked at BM I would be making sure my CV was up to date and that I had an interview suit that fitted. If I worked for the Jobcentre, I would be trying to clear my desk to deal with a possible influx of new applications for JSA. And if I worked within one of the agencies, I might invest in a suit of armour...
Edited about a minute after posting to fix a broken link.
Edited 0953 on 8 Feb 07, "HN51" to "H5N1", thanks Jo :)