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Foot-and-mouth 'could have been handled better'

March 23, 2002 Financial Times (London) by Cathy Newman
The foot-and-mouth epidemic could have been better handled, the government admitted yesterday in evidence to an inquiry into the outbreak.

Submitting a 140-page dossier to the "Lessons Learned" inquiry - one of three separate investigations - Lord Whitty, food and farming minister, said: "Many of the measures that the government and the industry took were criticised both at the time and since. Undoubtedly there are some things that with hindsight we would do differently or better." The government defended its decision to slaughter animals rather than control the spread of the disease through vaccination. The build-up of carcasses and pictures of pyres were blamed for a downturn in tourism.

More than 4m animals were culled, against the 434,000 in the 1967 outbreak, and costing Pounds 1.2bn in compensation to farmers. A further 2.5m animals were killed for welfare reasons as they could not be moved from winter pasture.

But vaccinating animals against the disease "would not be an alternative to slaughter in the first instance", the memorandum concluded. It might, however, play a part in controlling outbreaks in future.

The government memorandum was attacked as a whitewash by the Tories. Peter Ainsworth, shadow environment secretary, said: "The government's submission . . .is a lesson in arrogance, loaded with complacency, peppered with evasion and served up with dollops of whitewash."

After the world's biggest outbreak of foot-and-mouth, Britain is now officially free of the disease. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said handling foot-and-mouth was "bigger and more complex" than the the involvement in the Gulf conflict.

The government admitted in its submission that in future outbreaks it would move to protect the tourism industry by keeping footpaths open in areas not hit by the disease. The blanket closure of footpaths dissuaded visitors from coming to the UK, and contributed to the economic impact of the disease, which cost the equivalent of 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product.

"In the new interim contingency plan, we have been able to take on board more recent veterinary risk assessments, and there is as a result no requirement for countrywide closure of footpaths," the submission concludes. Paths should not be closed unless they are within 3km of infected farms.

In future epidemics, the government pledged to stop all animal movements once a case was confirmed and to kill infected animals within 24 hours.

The submission denies a failure of leadership from the former Ministry of Agriculture, which was abolished at last June's election.

Iain Anderson's Lessons Learned inquiry is being held in private, angering the Tories who want a public inquiry. Two other inquiries were ordered by the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett. One, into the future of farming, was published this year, and a scientific study into infectious diseases is being carried out by the Royal Society.

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