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Secrecy lingers on after list of official blunders

February 18, 2002 The Daily Telegraph(London) by Robert Uhlig
A YEAR ago this week, the world's worst foot and mouth epidemic began. It caused extensive animal and human suffering, cost billions of pounds, dominated the political scene for months and was the worst crisis the Blair Government has faced.

Such was the stinging criticism at the failure to control the virus that the Prime Minister was forced to take personal charge three months after the epidemic began.

He also postponed the date of the general election and, just a day after it eventually went ahead last June, he axed the Government department responsible for agriculture, along with its minister. Even now, the fall-out of the crisis still reverberates. A number of reports on the outbreak, which began on Feb 20, 2001, continue to criticise the Government's handling of it. Calls for a full public inquiry refuse to go away.

Mistakes were acknowledged along the way. The then Ministry of Agriculture admitted that organisation broke down in Cumbria and Devon and the Army had to be called in. Many controversial judgments were made, including the decision to slaughter animals within a 3km (almost 2 mile) radius of an infection hotspot, and not to use vaccination.

Tony Blair repeatedly promised a proper, open inquiry at the height of the epidemic, but in August he announced that two private inquiries and a policy commission would investigate the causes, effects and repercussions of the outbreak.

All were to be held behind closed doors and have no specific powers to call witnesses, officials or ministers.

By then Nick Brown, the Minister for Agriculture, had been replaced by Margaret Beckett. His department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, was replaced by Defra - the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

But these actions were still not enough to assuage public criticism. Today, legal action launched by farmers and businesses badly affected by the outbreak and aimed at forcing the Government to hold a full public inquiry, begins at the High Court in London. The court will hear a four-day judicial review of the Government's decision. If the case is successful, a full public inquiry is likely to be ordered.

The BBC and several newspapers, including The Daily Telegraph, have successfully applied to intervene in the case to argue that under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression, the foot and mouth inquiries should be conducted in public.

In the meantime, several inquiries have already reported. All have pointed out serious deficiencies in the Government's response to the crisis and recommended that a public inquiry is needed to ensure the same mistakes are not made again.

The National Farmers' Union was first to report with a review of the handling of the outbreak that condemned the Government's response as "ill-prepared, overwhelmed and, too often, incompetent".

It said the Government's failure to bring in the Army at the start was the major reason the outbreak spread so rapidly. More than three million animals need not have been slaughtered had the Government prepared adequate contingency plans and acted decisively, the report said.

The NFU report found that the outbreak was quickly contained in those counties where the response was swift, well-resourced and co-ordinated by officials familiar with local conditions.

But too often Government officials did not know or understand local conditions, or chose not to use vets who knew the farms and local countryside.

Prof Ian Mercer, chairman of the Devon county council inquiry, called for field operations to come under a military commander of at least brigadier level from the start of the outbreak.

He urged the Government to "get off its backside" and said: "We now know the Government's plan was not adequate and they have confessed to that. They also agree it was overtaken by the scale and speed with which the virus spread."

An all-party committee of MPs called for the Government to hold a public inquiry in its report published at the end of last month.

The environment, food and rural affairs committee said there was a danger of the public believing Government shortcomings had been covered up, and it promised to hold its own hearings if the Government's private inquiries were a whitewash.

It said the Government needed to investigate warnings that the Ministry of Agriculture received in 2000 about a new strain of foot and mouth disease spreading from Asia and Africa.

The MPs were also concerned about the continued risk from meat imports and failure to control them.


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