An epidemic of evasion

October 30, 2001 The Daily Telegraph(London)
Governments generally hold inquiries for three reasons: to assuage public concerns; to learn lessons from past failure; and to prevent the repetition of mistakes. By all three criteria, the case for a full public inquiry into the handling of the foot and mouth epidemic is overwhelming. It is difficult, even now, to describe the full scale of the calamity. The first outbreak of foot and mouth in Britain since 1967 was allowed to escalate into the worst outbreak of the disease the world has known. One in eight of our farm animals was slaughtered. The cost to the taxpayer, the rural economy and the environment is still being counted. The merest suspicion that all this could have been prevented is enough to merit a proper investigation. In the absence of an official public inquiry, there have been two "freelance" investigations: one by Devon County Council and one by the magazine Private Eye. The European Parliament, under pressure from Conservative MEPs, looks likely to order a third. Despite the failure of ministers to co-operate, the findings of both unofficial studies are damning. Devon describes the Government's handling of the crisis as "lamentable", and the performance of Maff officials as "insensitive and even belligerent". Private Eye, in a remarkably thorough investigation, is even more scathing. It accuses the Government of slaughtering millions of animals unnecessarily, of acting outside the law, and of setting its policy to suit Labour's election timetable.

Despite a petition of more than 100,000 signatures organised by Farmers' Weekly, ministers have resolutely refused to set up a public tribunal. Instead, they have organised in-house studies with limited remits. All the key questions thus remain unanswered. When did ministers first hear of the outbreak? What action did they order? Why were they so slow to halt the movement of animals? Is it true, as we report today, that 40 per cent of the culled beasts might have been saved by more prompt action? Why were the lessons of 1967 ignored? Why were there such unconscionable delays between identification, slaughter and destruction? Why the vacillation over burning versus burial, and slaughter versus vaccination?

Many country people are convinced that ministers are reluctant to allow a public inquiry for one reason: they fear it would reveal that their reaction to the disease was dictated by electoral rather than veterinary criteria. Put crudely, many farmers suspect that ministers were far more concerned with the date of the election than with eradicating the disease, and that this prejudiced their response to it. Without a full inquiry, who is to say that this suspicion is unfounded?

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