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How foot and mouth is fuelled by computers and cluelessness

November 12, 2001 The Daily Telegraph(London) by Adam Nicolson
On a 17th-century Dutch map of Venezuela, inland from the coast, what is meant to be the Amazonian jungle extends for thousands of miles of pimply hills and one or two elegant trees. It looks like the park at Petworth. Among them, the cartographer has scattered one or two bodies here and there, and above them he makes a passing reference to the locals' drinking habits with the words: "Hic alcoholados." It was all he knew of that distant wilderness.

It turns out that the ministry that deals with farming - ex-Maff, now Defra (but if you ring them up, it's the same people, same telephone numbers, same mindset, even one of the same ministers) - has just about the same grasp of the geography of Great Britain as that poor Dutchman had of the Venezuelan interior. The epidemiologist Professor Roy Anderson, of Imperial College London, told the Commons Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee last week that he had asked Maff-Defra recently for the database of farm locations by which the spread of foot and mouth disease had been monitored. Immensely helpful, they sent him the data, but the co-ordinates they provided left him perplexed. Half the farms he tried to look up, as Prof Anderson told the committee, "were out in the North Sea". This had the MPs in stitches; there were hoots of laughter at the idiocy of computers and/or civil servants, or both. But on the ground, it has become more than a joke. My small farm (90 acres, 60 ewes, six beef suckler cows) in the Sussex Weald is far too small not to make a loss in the modern marketplace, so with four of my neighbours, we have clubbed together in a kind of co-operative, the Wealden Farmers Network. We have our own cutting room, where the animals are butchered and packed up into sellable joints (and delicious sausages, by the way, all to be had, if you are interested, from joamos2000�hotmail.com).

Foot and mouth hasn't been anywhere near East Sussex, but we, like the rest of the country, continue to labour under the most pedantic licensing scheme any computer or bureaucrat could have devised. All movements of animals between one holding and another still need to be licensed and supervised by a vet. It's a bore for the network's managers, but what happened last week was an example of the deepest absurdity that a bureaucratic system can sink to.

Some lambs in a field by the church at Netherfield needed to be moved to fresh grazing 300 yards away down the road. The new grazing was nominally in a different holding. They needed a licence. A licence was applied for at the trading standards office at Lewes. The trading standards officer refused to grant it. Why? Because the field next to the church in Netherfield was "in a dirty area".

"A what?"

"An infected area. The computer says it is."

"But there has been no foot and mouth in East Sussex."

"We can't go against the computer."

"So what can we do?"

"Talk to Defra about it."

We spoke to Defra. Nothing to do with them. We should speak to Adas, the privatised agricultural consultancy (motto: "Helping farmers to help themselves"). Adas said it was nothing to do with them. We should speak to the trading standards people. We spoke to them again. They said we should speak to Defra again, to their map division. The map division required all the papers to do with the case. We weren't allowed to send the details by fax. Everything had to go by post.

It is one of the more frustrating aspects of Maff-Defra culture that its relationship to modern technology is chaotic. Not only are they relying for their decision-making on computers that confuse East Sussex with Cumbria, and Oxfordshire with the Goodwin Sands; if their computers break down, which they have done at steady intervals, the officials are not allowed to turn to pen and paper until the machines have failed to work for more than eight hours. There are offices all over the country where officials sit for hours at a time twiddling their thumbs. Nor can any movement licences be faxed out. They all have to go in the post. And they can't be sent to the farmer who needs to move his animals. They can only go to the vet the farmer has nominated, yet another stiffening of the system. Individual vets have received 40 movement licences in a single post, which they cannot possibly deal with in a single day.

So what happened to the Netherfield lambs? Their grass ran out. In the two weeks the system took to work through its coils, two of the lambs died. The rest lost condition in a way no farmer likes to see in his stock. And, of course, there will be not an ounce of compensation.

It is laughable until you imagine the mistake over the Netherfield lambs being made in reverse. What if a Defra computer had happily issued a movement licence to animals from an infected farm because the computer said there was no disease within hundreds of miles? Has this happened? It now, on the face of it, seems likely. Is the ministry computer, with its jumbled maps, actually implicated in the huge geographical spread of the outbreak? It is already clear from Professor Ian Mercer's report to Devon County Council that policy "appeared to have been implemented by officials poring over maps in remote offices, so that only holdings were considered, not the topography, the disposition of animals upon it, nor the distances between them". The scale of the foot and mouth crisis is clearly evidence of a disastrous central failure to understand what was going on. The Government has shamefully refused to set up a proper public inquiry, with real powers to summon evidence and witnesses. Is this dreadful computer failure the secret which that decision is designed to conceal?

All this is part of a larger question. The response to the foot and mouth outbreak has been characterised by a pervasive and fatal distance from the detailed realities on the ground. The lessons of the Northumberland report on the 1967 outbreak, which emphasised local, fast action, and burial, not burning, were ignored (or had been forgotten). It now seems certain that the disease was spread by the pyres that were meant to control it. The insistence this time on having suspected cases analysed centrally, and not acted on immediately and locally, introduced further catastrophic delays.

Sheer delay, it has been estimated, was responsible for the slaughter of about three million animals, which would otherwise have been unaffected. The new Draconian changes to the 1981 Animal Health Act, proposed by Elliot Morley last week, allowing the Government to kill any animal it wants to, whether the farmer wants it killed or not, is yet another symptom of a political and official culture governed by a contempt for any authority but its own. There is talk of making the present licensing scheme a permanent feature of farmers' lives, to be controlled by officials who know as much about the geography of rural Britain, and the lives of those who occupy it, as they do about the Matto Grosso or the hunting habits of the Nambikwara. It is a kind of official imperialism; but any empire governed like this would soon fall apart.


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