Posted on August 4th, 2009 No comments
Russia’s leading health official urged a boycott of Britain over swine flu yesterday as he appealed to his country’s football fans not to travel to Wales for a World Cup qualifying match.
Gennadi Onishchenko said that Britain was the source of most of Russia’s swine flu cases and that it was “absolutely inappropriate” to travel there. He suggested that Britain was being irresponsible in failing to cancel major events to contain the pandemic.
Thousands of Russians are expected to arrive at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for the match against Wales on September 9.
Their team is second in its group, only a point behind thje leaders Germany, and interest has been heightened by the arrival of three star players — Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov — in the English Premier League.
It is the second time that Mr Onishchenko has singled out Britain over swine flu, a sign that the chilly political atmosphere between London and Moscow persists. He demanded the suspension of all school trips abroad last week, saying “the less they travel to Great Britain, the better”.
He suggested that British officials were covering up the spread of infection. There were nearly 12,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus, which has been linked to the deaths of 31 people in Britain.
Cases stopped being routinely tested in Britain last month, with laboratory confimation being used only in a sample of cases to track the development of the virus.
Wales has been the least affected part of Britain, with only 89 of the 11,912 cases of the H1N1 virus confirmed and no fatalities. Mr Onishchenko told journalists in Moscow: “Our sources indicate that these figures are inaccurate. The number of those infected could be tens or even hundreds of times higher.”
These “sources” may have included the UK’s own Health Protection Agency, which estimated that there were 110,000 new cases of swine flu in England in the last full week of July.
Mr Onishchenko said that Russia had 55 confirmed cases of swine flu so far, 39 of whom had been tourists to Britain. He wrote to regional governors last week urging them “to prevent organised groups of children from travelling abroad until further notice . . . to prevent the import and dissemination of pandemic flu”.
A leading human rights activist, Lev Ponomaryov, said that the demand “smells of the Iron Curtain”.
A spokeswoman for the Russian Tourism Industry Union said that fans had already begun to heed Mr Onishchenko’s advice. Irina Tyurina said: “The number of cancellations varies from company to company, but is significant overall.” Fans choosing to go to Britain would be asked to sign declarations that they had not been
“coerced” into travelling, she said, to avoid possible prosecutions of tour companies by the public health body.
The Russian Football Union played down the risk. Its spokesman Andrei Malosolov said: “Undoubtedly, one needs to pay attention to the recommendations of the top doctor. We should also not forget, however, that Russia must not be left without support in Cardiff.”
A spokesman for Visit Britain, the UK tourism agency, said that Russia was the only country to issue official warnings against travel to Britain. However, Greece, the United Arab Emirates and China were raising concerns about the extent of infection in this country, while South Korea, Japan and the Czech Republic were expressing caution about international travel.
“This is a global issue and Britain is just one of 160 countries around the world with confirmed cases. There is no need for travellers to cancel or change plans to visit Britain because of swine flu,” the spokesman said. “The UK Government has confirmed that visitors to Britain will have access to the same advice and treatment for swine flu as UK residents.”
Jane Wilkinson, the deputy chief medical officer for Wales, said: “The levels of swine flu we are seeing in Wales are in line with what we typic-
ally experience with seasonal flu in the winter. Wales is safe and open for business for tourists.”