Foot and mouth epidemic officially over

December 29, 2001 The Guardian (London) by Paul Brown
With the milestone of three months since the last foot and mouth outbreak being reached tomorrow, the world's worst epidemic of the disease is about to be declared officially over. But the lessons of what went so badly wrong are still being investigated.

Margaret Beckett, head of the new environment and farming ministry, who probably owes her job to the fallout from the epidemic, revealed this week that the disease was out of control before it was discovered on February 20. It had reached 43 farms during the previous two weeks as animals already infected were traded and transported round the country. The disease was found among pigs at an abattoir in Essex, but had been brought there from Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland, where pigs had been infected for some time. Before the Ministry of Agriculture had realised, sheep in Cumbria, Devon and as far away as France and Holland were incubating the disease and beginning to infect others.

The result was a disaster for farming and tourism, caused the postponement of the general election, and raised questions about the competence of ministers and the Ministry of Agriculture, but mostly about the future of farming.

Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, who controversially opposed vaccination of animals, was delighted that three months had elapsed since the last case, number 2,030, was diagnosed in Cumbria on September 30. He said normal business could begin to resume on farms. "To pass this landmark will be a tremendous morale boost to farmers up and down the country. It has been a long battle with the disease but it looks very much like we have won.

"It brings a hope that we can start to move swiftly to regaining our disease-free status and break free of the costly straitjacket of disease restrictions. We have endured a year of sheer hell. Next spring must see the birth of new life on our farms, not the horror we witnessed this year.

The 90-day threshold is considered to be the earliest possible date after which the au thorities could lift foot and mouth restrictions. Not all of them will be lifted until February. The four counties that remain classified as "at risk - Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland - will need to be declared free. And, even then, blood testing in badly hit areas will continue until the government is satisfied that the country is clear of the disease. Then clearance by the EU and the OIE, the Paris based international animal health organisation, will also be needed.

The impact of the disease is still being felt across Britain, where 30 counties had ani mals slaughtered, on 9,677 farms. Cumbria was the worst affected with 1.2m animals killed, with neighbouring Dumfriesshire losing 388,735. Devon, where sheep dealers were unknowingly responsible for distributing the disease countrywide, was a second hotspot, losing 408,137.

Around 80% of the total of 4m animals slaughtered were sheep, although 595,000 cattle, 142,000 pigs and 2,000 goats were killed, as well as 300 other animals and pets such as llamas. A further 2m animals which could not be moved because of fears of spreading infection were slaughtered for welfare reasons.

Even these figures, showing a total of 6m animals killed, underestimate the true number, since many lambs and calves were only days old when the slaughterers arrived and were not counted in the official figures. The total was around one in eight of all farm animals.

The government has currently three inquiries into different aspects of the epidemic, designed, ministers say, to get rapid answers to how to stop future epidemics. Critics, who unsuccessfully demanded a public inquiry, say they are designed to avoid anyone asking awkward questions.

A casualty of the epidemic in political terms was Nick Brown, the agriculture minister, whose open and honest style was stamped on heavily by the Downing Street machine when the general election loomed. After the election he was moved to a junior minister's job in social security.

Tony Blair's "taking personal control" had no bearing on the course of the disease, and was notable for his dithering over vaccination. Having first decided it was a good idea, the prime minister gave way to big farmers who refused to oblige, worrying about future exports. The vaccination question is still the main undecided issue for the inquiries and the EU.

The Ministry of Agriculture was abolished, but following the debacle of BSE and a series of other food scares, that had long been inevitable. Its replacement, according to the government, heralds a long overdue era where the environment and farming are considered together.

Edward Greenwell, president of Country Land and Business Association, said: "The truly interdependent nature of agriculture, tourism, rural business and environment has been realised for the first time by government and the public at large. Foot and mouth has had a negative impact on the national economy, on the environment, on tourism, on agriculture, on the structure of the livestock industryN

"It has also had serious effects on a broad spectrum of related businesses surrounding primary agricultural production, and on many other rural businesses which depend on public events, such as sporting occasions and shows, and on the public visiting the countryside."

The pig keeper blamed for starting the outbreak has quit farming after 40 years, weeks before he faces trial on 22 animal health charges.

Speaking from his home in Sunderland, Bobby Waugh, 56, denied that the outbreak started at his pig sheds at Heddon-on-the-Wall. He said: "I used to really care, but I've lost everything. I've given up the tenancy. That is it for me."

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