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Has the Government learnt nothing about foot and mouth?

February 19, 2002  The Daily Telegraph(London) by Iain Duncan Smith
Today is the sad first anniversary of the outbreak of the foot and mouth epidemic that devastated rural Britain. It is a grim and depressing milestone. Even though Britain was finally declared officially foot and mouth free in January, the bitter and terrible legacy of the disease will be with us for years to come.

Foot and mouth is not just about the countryside, it is a national tragedy. The impact on agriculture and on the whole of our rural economy was devastating, but those of us who value the One Nation school of politics know that its effects were felt in our cities as well. The facts make sad reading. There were 2,030 cases of the disease across 30 counties. Some 6.5 million animals were slaughtered, often in the most brutal circumstances, on nearly 10,000 farms. Those are the official figures. Some estimates have the number of animals slaughtered at nearer 10 million. The cost to the economy has been put at up to pounds 20 billion. Yet the statistics only reveal part of the story. There were the animal welfare problems, the likes of which we never expected to witness in this country. There were the plumes of black smoke that thickened the country air and the stench of rotting carcasses as animals were incinerated in mass graves.

Above all, however, there were the stories of human hardship and misery as farmers saw generations of work destroyed in a matter of weeks and their livelihoods wiped away before their very eyes.

It is estimated that of those affected by the disease, one in 10 are expected to leave the industry. This comes on top of the 64,000 farmers who have left the industry since 1997. Those that stay have to contend with the fact that in 2001 farmers earned an average of just below pounds 8,000 to cover their salary and reinvestment - an income less than the minimum wage.

At the same time, many businesses, particularly those dependent on tourism, have been driven to the edge of bankruptcy as large parts of rural Britain were forced to close down. Foot and mouth is estimated to have cost the British tourist industry some pounds 5 billion, with a quarter of a million jobs lost.

Throughout the crisis the Conservative Party never sought to make this a political issue. To us, preventing the spread of the disease and its eradication were national priorities outside the realm of party politics. That is why, at the outset, we offered the Government our backing in its efforts to tackle the disease while at the same time making constructive suggestions of our own.

Regrettably, however, we looked on with increasing exasperation at the dither, delay, sheer incompetence and lack of effective co-ordination across Whitehall that characterised their response to the disease. There was the delay in sending in the Army and, once deployed, the reluctance to allow it to get on with the job. At the same time as we were being assured by ministers that the disease was under control, or by the Prime Minister that we were on the "home straight", the backlog of slaughtered animals awaiting disposal continued to rise. There was the endless confusion and conflicting messages over the effectiveness of a policy of mass vaccination.

Even today the indecisiveness continues, despite the assurances we were given that the new Defra would be more effective than its predecessor, Maff. In this paper yesterday, even Nick Brown admitted that Britain is still vulnerable to a further outbreak of foot and mouth and that the Government needed to do more to prevent it: "I don't think just hoping it doesn't happen again is sufficient. There's clearly more we can do to reduce the chances."

One area where there should be immediate action is to restrict the import of foreign foodstuffs that fail to meet the hygiene standards of food produced in Britain. It is an absolute disgrace that it is nearly a year after the outbreak of foot and mouth and still nothing has been done. Conservative amendments to the Animal Health Bill that would have introduced new restrictions on imports were stupidly rejected by the Government.

It seems certain that foot and mouth entered the country through imported foodstuffs and it would be unforgivable if a lack of effective border controls enabled a recurrence of the disease. So the Government should stop dithering and get on and do something about it.

Above all, however, the case for a full, open and independent public inquiry remains overwhelming. We need to establish, beyond doubt, how the outbreak of the disease began, how it spiralled out of control so quickly and what lessons need to be learnt so that we can prevent it from happening again. It was a Labour government that established the inquiry into the last major outbreak in 1967. The tragedy is that nobody in the current government bothered to read any of its recommendations. After all, the Conservative government in 1997 commissioned a full public inquiry into BSE.

In fact, the Government seems prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to block such an inquiry. First it established three separate inquiries, none of which is public. Last month it made every effort through its Labour MEPs to thwart an inquiry by the European Parliament. Yesterday, it took the rare step of wheeling out the Attorney General to seek to block the action taken by vets and farmers against the Government's refusal to hold a public inquiry. The truth must out - a public inquiry is vital.

Foot and mouth was never just about farming, though that is where its impact was most direct and obvious. It was about the British economy. For everyone involved, it has been the most harrowing experience of their lives. Saddest of all has been the effect on those family farms and businesses. These are the people whose generations care about the environment, who look after the hedgerows and support their villages. The destruction of their livelihoods is a tragedy for everyone. Yet this Government seems indifferent to their plight. Without these farms and businesses we will all be diminished.


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