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Foot and mouth could easily strike the countryside again

January 30, 2002 The Daily Telegraph (London) by Matt Ridley
As brazen insults go, this takes some beating. Yesterday's report by Sir Don Curry's commission on the future of farming in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic was published not after the Government's own inquiry into the lessons learnt from the epidemic, but before. Moreover, it recommends further centralisation of farming activities, when those who have studied the foot and mouth epidemic so far agree that over-centralisation and official indecisiveness were major contributors to the disaster.

It is increasingly clear that the Government's decision not to hold a public inquiry into the foot and mouth epidemic has backfired badly. A public inquiry would have delayed its verdict until the whole tale was a faint memory, but would meanwhile have prevented others from judging the Government. As it is, the lack of a public inquiry has tempted other bodies to hold their own inquiries and reach their own judgments while the catastrophe is still fresh in people's minds. This produces fresh news stories every month. The first report was from Devon County Council, followed quickly by one from the National Farmers Union. Next month it will be Northumberland County Council's turn, and after that the European Parliament.

At some point, Professor Iain Anderson's "official" inquiry, staffed by the Cabinet Office, will add its voice. He is on a hiding to nothing. If, unlike the others, he exonerates the Government, he will be dismissed as a crony: the first thing he did when visiting Devon earlier this month was protest his independence from the Government. This rather undermines its own point.

So it is worth examining those reports already published in some detail. The Devon report is an astonishing document. Its chairman, Professor Ian Mercer, pulls no punches. Regretting the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) decision not to give evidence to the Devon inquiry, but to respond in writing, he states, with delicate irony: "Our concern for the poverty of communication during the early weeks of the outbreak is confirmed by what we now read. Many statements in the Defra response invite further questions, because they are vague, open-ended or inaccurate."

The dominant diagnosis in both the Devon and the NFU reports is a failure of organisation and communication by government, which exacerbated the crisis. Devon laments the "arbitrary and pedantic" way in which farms were picked for slaughter in "remote offices" by sometimes "insensitive and even belligerent operatives". The NFU speaks of "the lack of joined-up government", of "optimistic and inaccurate" information being passed up the chain of command within the ministry, of "inexplicable and varying delays", telephone calls unanswered, paperwork lost and inconsistent advice.

Farmers were unable to get through to help-lines, received conflicting advice, had to deal with different officials who did not understand farming conditions. Some officials even contradicted their own website. As one farmer put it to the NFU, Maff's officials were "so near drowning themselves that they were no help to anyone else". The mind boggles.

Neither the Devon nor the NFU report is distracted by the Government's attempts to blame farmers for the crisis. Both dismiss government leaks that blamed farmers and local businesses for excessive stock movements, poor bio-security, profiteering from contracts for cleansing and disinfecting and delaying slaughter.

Why did the Government find it so hard to cope? From the Devon and NFU reports, three obvious reasons emerge. The first is the lack of contingency planning. Says the Devon report: "It was not obvious to us from the evidence received that Maff was working to any form of coherent contingency plan. We now know from Defra that there was a 'largely internal' plan which, it is confessed, was overtaken by the scale and size of the epidemic. That tells its own story." The NFU also diagnoses a lack of contingency planning and a failure to apply the lessons of the official Northumberland report following the public inquiry into the 1967 outbreak.

The second reason for official failure was a lack of leadership and delegation. "It soon became clear," says the Devon report, "that Maff did not have among its ranks those who could lead operations in the field." From the fatal three-day delay in banning animal movements to the agonising delays over slaughter and disposal to the months of indecision over vaccination, decisions were repeatedly postponed. In implementing them, say both reports, the ministry refused to delegate, it "rebuffed" local vets, trained slaughtermen and other local "stakeholders" and resisted calling in the Army for far too long.

The third reason was legislation. Since 1967, environmental legislation has made it all but impossible to deal with foot and mouth epidemics by local slaughter and burial, the technique used for centuries. The closure of local abattoirs and the outlawing of local burial led to the grotesque pyres and the caravans of corpses carried across the country to rendering plants or burial sites.

The Devon report recognises, as the NFU does not, that such slaughter will not be allowed again. The closing of the countryside and its "catastrophic effect on tourism" would have been avoided by vaccination. Devon demands the Government "set aside its perceived presumption against vaccination".

But perhaps the most ominous warning in both reports is that it could all happen again. The opportunities for illegal imports of meat are little changed. The risk from legal imports are still high. Last November, the Government admitted that, between October 2000 and September 2001, no less than 108,339 tons of meat from bovine animals was imported from countries where foot and mouth is endemic. Although such imports are allowed only from parts of such countries as are free of disease, in practice few believe that Brazil, Botswana and Namibia can be relied upon to enforce such a distinction. It could happen again.


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