Thousands of live chickens deliberately infected with the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus are to be kept in a high security laboratory in Surrey.

As Britain braces itself for its first case of avian bird flu following confirmed outbreaks in Germany, Austria and Italy, the Government's veterinary laboratories agency (VLA) centre in New Haw near Addlestone will open a £2million high-security testing centre within its existing grounds in an attempt to find a cure for the virus.

The laboratory will be given the highest category four status the same as those dealing with bubonic plague, ebola and rabies, but does not require planning permission.

Staff at the ultra-secure unit will be inoculated against all known diseases and will go through two sets of shower rooms so as to not bring in any infections.

The facility will also have filters, air locks and breathing apparatus to prevent contamination.

But a spokesman at the VLA said he understood the concern local people might have but there was no need for them to worry.

He said: "We are in the process of building some new facilities but it is just an attempt to be prepared and to do a bit more research.

"The new facilities are part of our existing ones.

"Outbreaks of the bird disease in Turkey and Eastern Europe and increased surveillance for the disease across the European Union have significantly increased the workload for scientists and technicians.

"In addition to the increased number of samples being processed, there is also the added pressure to provide results as quickly as possible to enable other governments to take the appropriate action to control the potential spread of disease."

Dr Ian Brown, director of the International Reference Laboratory for Avian Influenza, said: "The VLA has been able to handle its existing workload, which has increased significantly over recent months.

"However, we need to find more capacity to manage that workload while boosting research into the disease.

The refurbishment will allow us to address the fundamental questions posed by the AI strains already detected in Europe."