How the epidemic defied all predictions

How the epidemic defied all predictions

July 27, 2001 The Times (London) by Valerie Elliott

WHEN Tony Blair held a Downing Street briefing on May 3 to announce that the foot-and-mouth outbreak was on the "home straight", he was clearing the decks for the general election.

Epidemiological forecasts supported him and suggested that the number of new cases a day would be down to zero by June 7. Even then, however, Mr Blair was fully aware that there could be a long tail to the disease, lasting through the summer into the autumn. The best analysis was that it could peter out by early August.

Ministers are now waking up to the fact that they are dealing with a stubborn rump. The Prince of Wales issued a warning earlier this week that the disease could last into the winter.

Some believe it is bad luck. Others have accused the farmers of being complacent and failing to follow strict disinfecting procedures. The farmers have hit back and blamed the spread of foot-and-mouth on poor disinfecting by milk tankers, feed lorries, vets, valuers and contract-cleaning teams.

Farming experts and many vets believe the Government was hopelessly unprepared for the scale of the epidemic and was also desperate to remove it as headline news.

They also believe that a lack of urgency and understanding of modern farming practices at the start of the outbreak has contributed to this lengthy tail.

On election day itself there were seven cases, and since then there have been another 179. The number of cases a day is now about four, against 40 cases a day at the peak.

Slaughter of animals on infected farms within 24 hours to speed eradication of the virus is also being achieved. Yet for every case there is still the contiguous cull of neighbouring farms -sometimes as many as five per case - and there is panic and dread among farming families in foot-and-mouth areas.

In areas around Penrith, Thirsk, Whitby, Settle, Crickhowell and Brecon the virus appears to be harboured in obscure flocks. David Tyson, president of the British Veterinary Association, is not surprised that the disease is still rampant. He believes that the Government has been playing "catch up" ever since the first outbreak in February.

In theory once ministers had imposed the strict movement bans on animals, the disease should have been contained. But the former Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF), now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, never accounted for the vast number of sheep movements that occur in the country. The problem for the Government, too, is that no one was prepared for an outbreak on such a scale.

The contingency plan was based on outbreaks on ten farms. The total by mid afternoon yesterday was 1,895. Civil servants had never contemplated a disease that had already spread, and common sheep-farming practices appeared to have been ignored, or not even known, by officials working to their plan.

John Thorley, director of the National Sheep Association, is even more outspoken. He blames a lack of interest by officials whose job is to advise ministers about the industry.

"I find it desperate, actually, that so many people are so badly informed. I don't blame ministers. Nick Brown and his team were superb once they understood the industry. The new team is learning fast. But officials should get out of their ivory towers and see what is going on on the ground."

He is particularly critical of the cleaning and disinfecting strategy. "It was shambolic from the start. Some of us thought farmers or the Army should have been made to do the work. They would have had no self interest. But some of these contractors appear to have been profiteering and it has been in their interest to see the spread of the disease."

Richard Macdonald, director-general of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), believes it was naive for anyone to believe that the disease would be over quickly. "The more we realised that the spread was so vast, we knew that it would run on."

He believes, however, that the Government has now identified the areas of highest infectivity and is hopeful that the virus will not be endemic in the national flock. He says officials and vets inside the Government should have increased blood-testing of sheep weeks ago and is dismayed by the slow decision-making.

Three weeks ago the NFU warned the Government to tighten controls in Yorkshire to prevent the disease spreading to the country's largest pig-rearing area south of the Humber. Yet the Government dithered until this week before announcing tough new licensing for vehicle movements in the Thirsk area, with officials "riding shotgun" in lorry cabs to ensure that disinfecting and bio-security measures are in place.

Some farmers have dropped their guard. In the main cluster they are also very tired of trying to keep foot-and-mouth at bay. They have little money and are paying vast sums on disinfectant -an average bill is Pounds 500 a month.

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