The world does not seem to get that much safer from one generation to the next. No sooner do you get rid of the Soviet nuclear threat than along comes global terrorism to replace it in the pantheon of our pyschological phobias. And for all the great strides that have been made in medicine to improve and protect our health, there are still plenty of nasty bugs lurking out there threatening to bite us in the bum (as they say!). One of the potentially most serious is that old stalwart, influenza.

The Federation of Wholesale Distributors and four of its members have recently taken part in a cross-government exercise to test its ability to respond to the arrival of pandemic influenza in humans in the UK. Now, seasonal (or common) flu is one thing – most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available. But pandemic flu is a virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak of serious illness. Three worldwide outbreaks of influenza occurred in the 20th century: in 1918, 1957, and 1968. They were named after their sites of origin as Spanish, Asian, and Hong Kong influenza, respectively.

Experts predict that that another pandemic is inevitable at some point in the future probably emanating from south east Asia – and although there is no immediate threat, it seems eminently sensible for the government to test its procedures to cope with such an event. Thus was born the aptly named ‘Exercise Winter Willow’ (aspirin comes from willow, of course) that the FWD team took part in over two days last month.

Its focus was entirely on the impact of human pandemic influenza on industry and government’s ability to maintain activity in the face of the anticipated loss of staff due to the illness itself and responsibilities for caring for others.

FWD and other elements of the food industry came together for the exercise under the aegis of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). A joint Defra and industry team that included FWD had carried out the planning over several months.

The actual exercise was a test of plans and preparedness across all government departments at national, regional and local levels – and so was an impressively large affair.

The wholesalers who took part were 3663 and Brakes from foodservice, and Booker and Musgrave Budgens Londis from traditional grocery wholesale, with FWD playing a central co-ordinating role. Other wholesalers who want to factor in influenza to their business continuity planning should visit the government website at [] for more information.

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