CHICKENS started arriving from the mainland yesterday for the first time since a ban was imposed to stop the spread of bird flu six weeks ago. Health checks were made on 38,000 birds imported from Guangdong in a convoy of trucks. They had already been in quarantine on the mainland for five days and underwent blood tests there for the H5N1 virus. Staff at the Agriculture and Fisheries Department's Man Kam To laboratory carried out blood tests on 13 chickens from each truck. Poultry traders at Cheung Sha Wan wholesale market said the health checks extended the chickens' journey by at least three hours. They warned the delay could kill many chickens before they reached the market. The birds were not allowed out of their cages on the trucks until test results were faxed from Man Kam To, which took at least two hours. Poultry workers sprayed water over the chickens to stop them dehydrating. 'Many are bound to die. It is much worse when the truck is stationary,' said one of the traders, Ma Chak-kwan. 'The system must be improved. The tests must be done more efficiently.' The truck drivers collected the chickens from Guangzhou at 4 am, but 11 hours later the birds were still sealed in the back of the vehicle. The first truck arrived at Cheung Sha Wan market at about 1 pm and the first batch of chickens was not unloaded until 2.30 pm. A government spokesman said the delay was due to problems on the mainland side of the border and because of arrangements made for the press. Deputy Director of Agriculture and Fisheries Yip Shui-ming said officials would consider how to improve conditions. 'Our priority is to ensure the farms are clean and the new system runs smoothly without confrontation with the poultry traders,' he said. 'We will discuss with the traders possible improvements, such as building some coops on a reconstructed site inside the market where the chickens could wait, and removing any unnecessary steps.' Director of Agriculture and Fisheries Lessie Wei Chui Kit-yee said the aim was to keep the 'highly contagious virus' under control. 'We will apply for $10 million to recruit 40 staff to work in the ongoing system,' she said. The Government has spent about $4 million, including replacing all wooden cages and coops with plastic models. It is estimated the price of chickens will be one-third higher than before the bird flu outbreak, at about $15 per catty at wholesale price. Eighteen people contracted the bird flu virus before the Government banned the import of chickens on December 23 and slaughtered 1.5 million chickens in Hong Kong. Six of the people who contracted the virus have died.