May 5, 2002 Sunday Telegraph (London) by Christopher BookerDocuments that have come to light only thanks to the European Parliament's inquiry into last year's multi-billion-pound foot and mouth disaster reveal that it represented a far more extensive failure of Government than has hitherto been supposed.
A report to be presented to the inquiry tomorrow by a British MEP shows that, had it not been for the total breakdown of a strategy for the handling of foot and mouth outbreaks by the European Commission, more than nine million animals might have been spared from slaughter and the British economy could have been saved more than pounds 10 billion. The 2001 outbreak might have been a minor incident, over in weeks, instead of one of the greatest catastrophes ever inflicted on Britain's countryside.
One of the best-kept secrets of last year's disaster was the extent to which, under European Community directive 85/511, overall direction of the handling of foot and mouth had been handed over to Brussels. Under a second directive, 90/423, Britain should have had a detailed contingency plan in place, requiring a full-scale emergency vaccination programme within days of the start of the epidemic. However, the report to be handed to the European Parliament's inquiry on behalf of the Europe of Democracies and Diversities group by Jeffrey Titford MEP, leader of the UK Independence Party, shows how the system broke down at every point, with liability for its failure split equally between the Commission and the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
The first failure highlighted by his report was that, when the Commission in 1990 ordered every member state to draw up a contingency plan for dealing with a foot-and-mouth outbreak, its guidelines did not allow for an epidemic remotely on the scale of that which hit Britain in February 2001. They did, however, require governments to submit detailed evidence that they knew exactly what to do in the event of an outbreak and had sufficient resources in place to implement those plans.
The second failure was that Maff's response, as can now be seen from the plan it submitted, did not meet the guidelines and was woefully inadequate.
The third failure was that, although the Commission formally approved all the member states' contingency plans in 1993, it did so without examining them. The Commission did not begin checking the adequacy of the plans, as the directive required, until 1999. Even then it was not due to review the UK plan until 2001, by when it was too late.
Another requirement of the 1990 directive was that, if an outbreak was anything but small-scale, capable of being overcome by the instant slaughter of infected animals, governments must be equipped to use emergency vaccination. In 1999 the Commission's scientific veterinary committee issued a confidential report warning that the risk of foot and mouth in the EU was "extraordinarily high". Advising member states that additional measures should be taken "to prevent a local outbreak becoming a disaster", it laid down 10 criteria to determine whether or not vaccination should be used. Governments had to be fully equipped to vaccinate as soon as any of these criteria were met.
When foot and mouth was identified in Britain in February 2001, it rapidly became clear that Maff had been caught short in every respect. Within a week at least seven of the 10 criteria requiring vaccination had been met. But because Maff had not complied with Commission guidance, it was forced to rely on the mass-slaughter policy which the Commission had already advised was inadequate even in an epidemic much smaller than Britain's.
Confidential Commission documents called for by Mr Titford's staff and detailing just how totally this strategy failed are easily the most significant evidence yet presented to the Parliament's inquiry. They blow wide open the Commission's recent claim that it has found "no major flaws" in the strategy, although one British minister, Lord Whitty, has admitted that the 2001 epidemic was on a scale "not really covered by the contingency plan".
It will be fascinating to see if the inquiry pursues this evidence that the EU system failed, or whether most MEPs simply close ranks in endorsing the cover-up.