Delays 'doubled' the foot and mouth toll

Delays 'doubled' the foot and mouth toll

July 2, 2001 The Daily Telegraph(London) by Roger Highfield

THE number of outbreaks of foot and mouth disease could have been cut by half if prompt action had been taken by the Government at the start of the crisis, according to calculations that are about to be made public.

Since the virus was detected on Feb 21, around 1,800 farms have been officially confirmed as infected and 3.5 million animals slaughtered, pushing some farming areas into economic recession and damaging tourism.

The crisis led to the abolition of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the demotion of the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, and the postponement of the general election.

Tomorrow, the Channel 4 programme Dispatches will report on preliminary calculations carried out at Imperial College by a member of a team modelling the effects of the disease, under Prof Roy Anderson.

The study by Dr Neil Ferguson underlines how the crisis was mishandled and the disease was allowed to get out of control by delays in implementing movement restrictions and in slaughtering affected herds.

It confirms estimates made by the same team when the epidemic was at its worst, and highlighted by The Daily Telegraph, that a failure to take prompt action had doubled its effects.

Although the ministry was aware that it was taking too long to slaughter animals from infected farms, it took the work of four teams of epidemiologists - Imperial, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Maff - to show in March that each infected farm was infecting around two more, meaning the epidemic was out of control.

New calculations by Dr Ferguson suggest that those figures could have been cut by about a quarter if the ministry, three weeks into the crisis, had started slaughtering infected animals 24 hours after diagnosis. If the ministry had done that at the start of the crisis, the figures would have dropped by half.

The great lesson of BSE - the necessity of calling in outside scientific advice - was not acted on soon enough. After initial work at Imperial, it was due to the initiative of Sir John Krebs, head of the Food Standards Agency, that epidemiologists got access to the data critical for their calculations as soon as they did.

Sir John told Dispatches: "One of the lessons we learned from the Phillips inquiry into BSE is that we should always seek not just the immediate scientific advice to hand but seek the best advice we can."

He believes that if the "all the stops had been pulled out by everybody in government, we might have been able to get the advice a week or so earlier".

The programme presents an insider's view of a crucial meeting held on Mar 21, when it became clear that the ministry and Jim Scudamore, its Chief Veterinary Officer, had lost control.

Dr Ferguson opened with projections of the epidemic. "When Neil Ferguson showed the first of the projections, it was a really powerful moment that I'll never forget. The tension in the room was palpable," said Sir John.

"By the beginning of May, we would see up to a thousand new farms a day being affected." Dr Ferguson said to control the disease a ring cull was necessary.

The findings were backed by another team at Edinburgh who showed that the epidemic was doubling in size every eight days.

But Mr Scudamore was unmoved. Also at the meeting was Prof David King, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser.

Prof Anderson recalled: "On one side there was the Chief Scientist saying 'we must act' and on the other side there was almost a feeling, this was a personal impression of hopelessness within Maff, saying 'logistically we can't do this'." Sir John said the meeting marked the turning point in the Government's handling of the epidemic. Mr Scudamore's dismissive reaction prompted Prof Anderson to announce that the disease was out of control.

It also spurred Prof King to take over. "The next morning I dictated a letter to the Prime Minister," he said.

That day, Mr Scudamore and Mr Brown were sidelined. Richard Sibley, of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, recalled how the Chief Vet returned from the Cabinet Office and said he and Mr Brown now had passive roles.

Encouraged by similar findings from a team at Cambridge, Prof King decided to implement the advice of the Imperial team: kill infected animals within 24 hours, kill healthy animals on neighbouring farms within 48 hours.

He said a follow-up analysis by a team in Edinburgh had shown two factors were critical in bringing the epidemic under control: reducing the time to cull on infected premises and the removal of animals on contiguous farms.

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