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Foot and mouth figures massaged to help election:
Damned lies and statistics

April 29, 2001 Sunday Telegraph (London) by Christopher Booker

Evidence has emerged that the Government is falsifying the foot and mouth figures, to create the impression that the epidemic will be over by the time of a June election. It is using the authority of two leading scientists, neither with any veterinary background, to bamboozle MPs into believing that its slaughter policy has been so successful that the number of cases will soon drop to nil.

Such was the message given on Monday to the Commons Agriculture Committee by Mr Blair's chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, a chemist whose speciality is given in Who's Who as "surface science". On Wednesday the same MPs were shown a graph produced by Professor Roy Anderson's team at Imperial College, and used by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to do its computer modelling on the course of the epidemic. This showed the number of predicted cases dropping to zero on exactly June 7.

However, the data used to create such a convenient picture has been so distorted that, as Dr Paul Kitching, of the Pirbright Animal Health Institute, one of the Government's most senior experts, has confirmed, the results are all but meaningless.

At least four techniques are being used to ensure that the curve of daily "cases" is heading sharply downwards, so that the earlier rate of as many as 44 new reported outbreaks a day had dropped last week to as few as six.

First, hundreds of slaughtered farms that would previously have been included in Maff's daily outbreak figure are now being reclassified as "slaughter on suspicion" or "dangerous contacts". While the published total of outbreaks had risen by Friday to 1,499, "suspicious" or "contact" cases had reached more than 1,000, although none are included in the main total.

The decision to include outbreaks in the headline total only when they are subsequently confirmed by laboratory testing has also had a dramatic effect in lowering the epidemic curve, not least since, as the agriculture minister, Nick Brown, told MPs on Wednesday, tests on destroyed animals have in two-thirds of cases been negative. This alone has meant a reduction of more than 60 per cent in the declared number of outbreaks.

Mr Brown also confirmed that Maff is no longer, as previously, testing for foot and mouth in victims of its huge "contiguous cull", under which it has slaughtered all animals on as many as 5,000 farms that fell within a designated "three-kilometre zone" around an infected holding. Since many of these animals may be infected, the decision to stop testing means that they too are no longer added to the figures.

There are persistent reports that infected farms are simply not appearing on the Maff website. On a day when Cumbrian farmers counted no fewer than 24 holdings that had been declared infected in their county alone, Maff reported only nine new cases in the whole county.

However, the most alarming policy switch of all appears to be Maff's new reluctance to confirm genuine cases of foot and mouth even when local vets are adamant that animals have the disease (see story below). This contrasts starkly with the ministry's earlier readiness to confirm foot and mouth on the slightest suspicion and provides a further reason why the official computer model shows the figures plummeting.

No one has been more forthright in criticising the shortcomings of this model than Dr Kitching, head of the foot and mouth world reference centre at Pirbright. In an interview on Channel Four News, he said that the modellers had come up with "some very seductive graphs" showing how the epidemic might develop. But the epidemiological data available to be fed into the computer was so inadequate that "one has to question the value of the data coming out". Dr Kitching, who was struck by how, when the prospective election date was changed from May to June, the projections seemed to adjust accordingly, has now announced that he is resigning to take up a new post in Canada.

The story the Government wants us all to believe is that the epidemic will be over by June. The true story is that the Government is still desperately worried that the disease may spread from sheep to cattle, as the nation's dairy cows come out of winter quarters on to grass.

Maff may have eased up on killing cattle, but only to redouble its efforts to eliminate millions of sheep. Last week, away from the headlines, it was reported from Dumfries and Galloway that "they are killing every sheep in sight". Similar massacres are planned for the Forest of Dean, Northumberland and Devon. Mr Blair is now plunging on, more recklessly than ever, with the greatest gamble of his premiership. Having rejected vaccination (see the story at the bottom of the page) it seems his advisers are now falling back on fiddling the figures. It is an awesome gamble.


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