Published: 10/04/2003, Volume II3, No. 5850 Page 19

Reviewing the Sunday papers on TV the other week, I turned from the Iraq crisis to a report on page one of The Observer and said: 'That is more likely to kill us than Saddam Hussein.'

No great prescience there and we were not talking about Gordon Brown's seventh Budget, but what we now know as severe acute respiratory syndrome. It started on 26 February when a man was admitted to hospital in Hanoi with a fever, dry cough and mild sore throat.

At least that is the version supported on the Department of Health website, although we are entitled to be wary where mutant viruses and the highly secretive People's Republic of China are concerned. The World Health Organisation ticked off Beijing for secrecy this week.

No wonder, if it is true that Professor Liu Jianlun, a top Chinese medic, actually carried the disease from bustling Guangzhou on a 45minute flight to the Metropole Hotel, Hong Kong, on 21 February. Only when he was dying did Liu admit a new strain of contagious flu in his own hospital.

By which time his coughing had turned him into the latest version of Victorian villain Typhoid Mary, spreading the disease globally, so that - as I write - 2,500 people have it and around 100 have died.

Switch now to our own horizon where Mr Milburn's team has many other things to worry about, including daily guerrilla attacks on NHS performance and F-word hospitals. Does Mr Milburn spend much time on what may - may - become a pandemic ?

The short answer is no. 'Because we have a National Health Service we have the benefit of a very effective system with the ability to spot this easily and quickly, ' aides say. What is more the DoH can talk to 'every single GP' every day using EPINet, which tells doctors what symptoms to look out for. Remember, most victims have been healthcare workers.

So where is the problem? Well, Opposition MPs are paid to oppose. So Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have been making a fuss about the timing of the 1 April launch of the Health Protection Agency, the brainchild of the chief medical officer's Getting Ahead of the Curve report of January 2002.

Last month, David Heath, bearded Lib Dem MP for Somerton and Frome and a qualified optician, directly challenged the timetable in a Commons adjournment debate: disorganisation between the merged bodies, threats of redundancy, weakened accountability, as HSJ recently reported.

The HPA is Hazel Blears' baby, but David Lammy was deputed to tell the MP all will be well. 'The UK has a strong public health infrastructure...the HPA [will] further strengthen our arrangements.' Ministers stress that the appointment of Pat Troop, deputy CMO, as chief executive is meant to stress continuity.

They speak of 'mischief-making'.

Is that fair, I asked the MP. 'I do not doubt the HPA will make things better in the long run, but It is a funny time to do it, 'Mr Heath insists.He cites the threat of bio-terrorism as well as SARS.

Bio-terrorism? 'There is no evidence that SARS is linked to it, ' says the DoH website, though The Sun will probably give the theory an airing in due course. But it is a more fruitful angle. Ministers do spend time on this problem, albeit not in a blaze of publicity.

John Hutton is Britain's man on a committee of G7 industrialised states (plus Mexico, whose health minister, Julio Frank, is much admired) which co-ordinates information and warnings. Thus when the cache of deadly ricin was found in a north London flat - did it really emanate from an al Qaida base in northern Iraq? - 'we were able to notify the others within an hour'.

It is that sort of co-operation which feeds down to GP surgeries.Doctors are told how to spot the symptoms of anthrax and smallpox, not something most of them see every day.

Some 70,000 people a year die of infections, 5,000 of them hospitalacquired ones, and the anthrax panic in the US after 9/11 shows fast insecurity can spread.

That may be the real lessons of the SARS affair. In our safe little bit of world we frighten easily, as Mr bin Laden will have noticed. It is not over yet.