Catalogue of failures' over foot and mouth

January 22, 2002 The Independent (London) by Michael Mccarthy
FARMERS CONDEMNED the Government's response to last year's foot- and-mouth epidemic as "a catalogue of failures", with Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, declaring the likelihood of another outbreak was "very real".

In its first full review of Britain's worst foot-and-mouth outbreak - during which nearly four million animals were slaughtered - the NFU said there were "failures on every issue", from contingency planning to communications.

Many of the lessons of the last epidemic, in 1967, had clearly been ignored in 2001, the NFU said in a wide-ranging report yesterday. "The Government was ill -prepared, overwhelmed and, too often, incompetent," said Mr Gill. "This time they must listen." The report makes 28 recommendations, many of them accompanied by strong criticism of official action.

Lack of proper contingency planning is top of the union's list of alleged government deficiencies. Such planning as there was failed to involve all the major stakeholders and had not been properly tested or updated, the report says. There was, for example, inadequate planning for the disposal of slaughtered animals.

Insufficient import controls on foreign meat - the probable source of the outbreak - come a close second, with the union saying they are not only inadequate but show no sign of any improvement.

The review also criticises the way the outbreak was handled. On the control strategy, it says, "resources were poorly co-ordinated and were quickly overwhelmed, leading to a rapid spread of the epidemic".

There was a failure to apply bio-security schemes, while the "contiguous cull" policy - killing uninfected animals near to those infected - was applied too rigidly.

On livestock movement controls, there was inadequate resourcing and preparation of licences, and the basis for balancing disease control with farmers' commercial needs was not clear. On cleaning and disinfection, there was a lack of control from the centre and repeated delays and mistakes in issuing contracts. On the controversial issue of vaccination, the NFU says there was a failure to communicate clearly and insufficient scientific research.

Mr Gill said: "It is hard to overstate the profound sense of waste and loss - emotional as much as financial - that farmers feel about this whole appalling episode. But their hurt has been compounded by a catalogue of delays, failures, incompetences and inadequacies.

"We owe it to these people, to the livestock industry, to the wider farming community and to society in general to ensure that the lessons of this horrendous episode are learnt and acted upon with a degree of urgency that has been lacking in recent months."

The NFU report will be submitted to the independent inquiry into the outbreak being chaired by Dr Iain Anderson.

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rejected several of the criticisms, saying it was not true that "nothing was being done" on import controls, and a new contingency plan would be prepared.

"The department is fully prepared for any new outbreak," the spokesman said.

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