Brigadier's battle with No10 over the foot and mouth cull

February 17, 2002 Sunday Telegraph(London) by Francis Elliott
ALASTAIR CAMPBELL, Tony Blair's official spokesman, repeatedly telephoned the man in charge of the battle against foot and mouth last year because of Downing Street's fury at images of dead cattle in the weeks before a general election.

On the first anniversary of the epidemic, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal the full extent of the desperation among ministers during the epidemic which killed 10 million animals and cost the taxpayer pounds 3 billion.

In his most frank account to date, Brigadier Alex Birtwhistle discloses the extraordinary tensions between the Prime Minister and his advisers and those at the front line of the battle to contain the disease.

Brig Birtwhistle, the man in charge of the cull in the north of England, says that Mr Campbell "screamed down the phone" at him because of the pictures, which were dominating newspapers and television reports.

Brig Birtwhistle says he was forced to remind ministers that it was their responsibility to take key decisions on how the stock should be disposed, and insisted that there were health risks in burying dead cattle rather than burning them. "There was a compliance risk - you couldn't bury cattle over five years old because of the BSE threat," he said. "Now somebody had to own that risk and I had to keep handing it back to them, saying: 'No, this is your risk: I want to know what you want to do with these cows. Don't ask me to magic them off. I'm not doing anything that is going to leave a legacy. This is your risk, minister or Prime Minister. I'll move them but it doesn't matter how many times Alastair Campbell screams down the phone at me, they aren't going anywhere until you tell me how you want them disposed of.' "

Yesterday, however, the retired soldier sought to downplay his initial comments but agreed that there had been pressure from Downing Street to "get the job done".

"He didn't scream down the phone at me but we kept getting calls from Downing Street saying, 'Why haven't the cows gone?' and the answer was, 'Because you haven't told us where to put them' ."

The soldier's revelation that Mr Campbell personally intervened in the operation will increase unease that political advisers are wielding too much power over civil servants and are manipulating Government policy for party-political ends. The Sunday Telegraph has established that neither Downing Street nor Maff had checked with the key official responsible for environmental health before changing the policy. The official, who was abroad at the time, rapidly reminded ministers that EU law forbids the burial of cows over five years.

The problem was exacerbated by delays from Whitehall, claims Brig Birtwhistle. "The initial slaughtering 'on farm' had taken place without separating the over-fives from the under-fives and all the bodies had been pushed together," he said. "These were three or four week old bodies by this stage and they were rotting. The ear-tags had fallen out and there was no way of finding out in a pile of 200 dairy cows which was which so all that had to go for rendering but every rendering plant was shut."

Brig Birtwhistle had been eight days from retirement when, through a mixture of bloody-mindedness and chance, he was given an opportunity to lead the fight against the virus. On a farewell tour of his troops, he arrived in Carlisle the day before Tony Blair was due for a meeting - arranged in secret - with farmers' leaders to discuss the escalating crisis.

Brig Birtwhisle, waving aside the lack of a formal invitation, not only attended the emergency summit in an upstairs room of a Carlisle pub but - without Ministry of Defence permission - delivered to the Prime Minister his own plan to clear a backlog of 150,000 dead animals and carry out a preventative cull.

Frustration was breeding anger. Brig Birtwhistle believes that Britain came close to serious civil unrest last March - unrest that made itself felt as Mr Blair arrived for that crucial meeting on March 22.

Inside the pub, The Shepherd's Inn, three circular tables had been pushed together and the Prime Minister was briefed in turn by farming union officials, county councillors and tourist leaders. "After about an hour and half, I was bored, frankly," recalls Brig Birtwhistle. "Eventually, the Prime Minister eyeballed me over the table and said: 'Will the administrative arrangements hold up?'

"I replied: 'I am not a logistician, Prime Miniser, but in my opinion they won't.'

"We then took a break and Blair looked very lonely. Leaders need leading sometimes so I went across to him. He said: 'How long do you think it's going to take?' I said: 'Prime Minister, I haven't got a bloody clue.' "

Perhaps it was this blunt rejoinder that won Mr Blair's respect. Certainly it was clear after the meeting restarted that the Prime Minister was receptive to the Brigadier's plan, cobbled together that morning "on a window ledge".

"Just get on with it - the resources and the nation are behind you" were the Prime Minister's parting words. Back on the ground, the soldier was struck by the uneasy thought that he had just taken on the responsibility for something that he barely understood. "Then I realised that it was very simple. You had two lots of kit, one live and one dead, and you had to pick them up and dump them somewhere else. The basic plan I drew on the back of a cigarette packet on the bonnet of my car. It consisted of two circles and a rectangle - it got a bit more elegant later on but that was the basic idea.

"We turned it round in six days - that was how long it took to get the time from diagnosis to disposal down to within 24 hours."

The most important single operation overseen by the soldier was the construction of a mass burial and slaughtering site at a military airfield near the village of Great Orton, outside Carlisle.

It is clear that Downing Street was delighted that the brigadier's efforts seemed to be helping to turn the tide of unfavourable coverage.

During the operation Brig Birtwhistle had three key tenets with which he inspired his troops. They were that the operation should not spread the virus; that it should be done with as much humanity as possible; and that it should leave no legacy.

Almost 12 months later, however, it is clear that the last of those aims has yet to be met in full.

Twenty-six of the 29 trenches at the Great Orton site are covered now - the last resting place of 466,312 animals buried beneath 6ft of clay.

From the start, however, the principal problem with the mass grave has been the fluid, leachate, seeping from the trenches. Last summer it was producing waste equivalent to that of the sewers of Carlisle - now the engineers responsible for its maintenance say that it is now equivalent to the waste from a small village.

Tankers still take away about 300,000 litres from the site each day for treatment at special plants in the Midlands.

Thoughts are now turning to the site's long-term future with a public meeting called for this week to discuss proposals to turn the area, renamed "Watchtree", into a nature reserve.

This week will see the first public sale since the outbreak at Longtown Mart, the largest sheep market in Europe until it became the unwitting epicentre of the epidemic which spread across the country. Malcolm Bendle, its company secretary, hopes to have 5,000 stock under the hammer this Thursday - less than half of what he would have expected last year before the outbreak.

On Burnside Farm, at Heddon-on-the-Wall, where ministers insist that the virus incubated, a few lengths of yellow "biosecurity" tape, straggling in the wind, fence off sheds that will undergo the last stages of the clean-up this week.

Within days of foot and mouth's appearance a year ago in an Essex slaughterhouse, Maff had pinned the blame on Bobby Waugh, the pig farmer operating from the now infamous Northumberland farm. Mr Waugh, who is due for trial on 22 animal health charges in May, continues to protest his innocence, saying that he does not feel responsible for the epidemic.

"I have never felt like public enemy number one because right from the first day people round here have supported me," he said.

He is demanding compensation for equipment that he says was damaged in the clean-up on his farm. "I wanted the farm cleaned months ago but they insisted that I would have to pay for it. As soon as I gave up my tenancy, they have decided to clean it up for the owner. It stinks."

The men who forced open the slurry pits that had lain unemptied on his farm for a year will attest to that. Many were physically ill.

However, despite Mr Waugh's alleged failures as a farmer, few of his former neighbours are prepared to heap further blame upon the 56-year-old. Together with many others in the rural community, they believe that he has been made a scapegoat for the failures in Whitehall and Westminster.

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