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Sting in the tail

Sting in the tail

July 30, 2001 Financial Times (London)

Britain's foot-and-mouth epidemic refuses to die out. At the beginning of May, Tony Blair argued that the slaughter policy was working and that the government was on the home straight. That claim was supported by independent epidemiological modelling which suggested that the number of daily new cases would halve every two weeks. But the number of new cases has remained stuck at around four a day for the last two months.

To be fair, the government's chief scientific adviser had warned that the outbreak would have a long tail. That is the unpredictable nature of epidemics in their final stages. But four cases a day seem more than the occasional bump. There is still a real danger that the disease could spread uncontrollably through large hill flocks or, even worse, to Britain's pig farms.

So what has gone wrong? The longevity of the epidemic owes much to the nature of modern livestock farming and trade. The scale of sheep movements and the size of farms make it easier for the disease to spread quickly before it is discovered and lie undetected thereafter.

One charge levelled at the government is that it relaxed its guard too early. The policy of culling animals in farms contiguous to the site of an infection was in theory relaxed in April, mainly as a concession to public squeamishness. In reality, there was little change. Restrictions on the movement of animals have been lifted in some areas and footpaths opened. But where controls have been relaxed, there is no evidence that this has been the cause of infections.

A more plausible explanation is that farmers, vets, officials and lorry drivers have not done enough to maintain the strict disinfection routine. They must comply assiduously with the guidelines, otherwise the disease will not be stamped out.

Only eradication will allow the worst affected areas of the rural economy to recover fully. The crisis has had a limited impact on Britain's economy, probably reducing gross domestic product by only 0.2 per cent in the first half of the year, with some recovery in the second half, according to the Bank of England. The impact on farming and tourism has been partially offset by robust retail sales. But that is little consolation for Cumbria and Devon, which have borne the brunt of the disease.

The government should keep its head. Downing Street's knee-jerk response to reports of the high cost of disinfecting farms suggests that it is still susceptible to making policy on the hoof. What matters now is to learn the lessons of this affair - and the best way to do that will be through a proper public inquiry.


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