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Foot and mouth epidemic farm virus policy was chaos

October 14, 2001 Sunday Telegraph (London) by Christopher Booker
Aformer senior vet with the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has produced statistical evidence for the first time to highlight the shocking contrast between the Government's handling of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic and that of Britain's last epidemic 33 years ago.

In 1967-8 the average time from first reporting a foot and mouth case to final disinfection of the farm was 19 hours. In 2001 this rose to an astonishing 235 hours, thanks to the incompetence with which Maff interpreted new rules that had been introduced by the European Union. This was a serious factor in allowing the disease to run out of control. This devastating exposure of Maff's mishandling of the 2001 epidemic comes in a paper by Alan Richardson, a former director of the Sir William Hamilton veterinary laboratory in Australia, who worked for Maff through the 1967-8 epidemic and came out of retirement last March to volunteer his services in helping to deal with the crisis in Cumbria, where he lives.

He paints a hair-raising picture of the bureaucratic chaos he found when he arrived at the Maff regional office in Carlisle, when he and two American volunteers had to buy their own protective clothing, boots and buckets from a local store, while "dozens of computers were being unloaded from a lorry".

However, the centrepiece of his paper is the light it sheds on one of the great puzzles of the 2001 epidemic, which was how the recommendations of the official Northumberland report on the 1967-8 epidemic were stood on their heads. Why were there now such delays at every stage, from diagnosis to slaughter to disposal to disinfection, often allowing days to elapse?

Why were carcasses no longer buried on the spot, as Northumberland urged was essential? The answer to these mysteries, as I revealed last March, was that foot and mouth rules had been changed under various EU directives.

The significance of Mr Richardson's paper is his confirmation of just how grotesquely these new bureaucratic rules created delays. Thirty years ago, to deal with a suspected outbreak which proved "clinically negative", took two hours on average. In 2001 this was 37 hours. More seriously, in "positive" cases, Mr Richardson shows how the time rose from 19 hours to 10 days or more, giving much greater opportunity for the virus to spread.

Mr Richardson is excoriating about those aspects of the handling of the 2001 epidemic where Maff came up with its own additions to the EU rules: notably its "slaughter on suspicion" policy and the "contiguous cull" under which millions of healthy animals were unnecessarily slaughtered just because they were on farms within "three kilometres" of an "infected premises". These refinements, not included in EU directive 85/511, were introduced in March to conform with the computer model for handling the epidemic devised by Professor Roy Anderson.

Mr Richardson concludes that the "contiguous cull" was the idea of "mathematical modellers", who seemed to have no idea of the logistical problems or the distress it would create. The "slaughter on suspicion" policy, under which vets were "bullied" by Maff headquarters into ordering animals to be destroyed when there was no direct evidence of disease, was "in every respect in breach of the professional code".

Should anyone wish to read why Mr Richardson hopes the various official inquiries will have the courage to challenge terms of reference "couched so as to preclude criticism of the Maff/Defra mandarins who have been responsible for this catastrophe", his paper is available on www.warmwell.com.


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