Horror warning over farm virus: RSPCA says that foot-and-mouth epidemic is set to reignite after Government's faliure to carry out tests on nine million sheep

Horror warning over farm virus:
RSPCA says that foot-and-mouth epidemic is set to reignite after Government's faliure to carry out tests on nine million sheep

July 22, 2001 The Observer by Amelia Hill and Nick Paton Walsh

THE foot and mouth epidemic that paralysed the British countryside, cost the economy pounds 10 billion, and could cause the slaughter of up to six million animals is primed to reignite, thanks to the Government's catastrophic mismanagement, according to the RSPCA.

Rates of infection could return to epidemic levels this autumn as the disease spreads through the country, said Christopher Laurence, head of the RSPCA's foot and mouth strategy group.

Failure by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to carry out sufficient blood-testing of the nine million ewes that roam freely on British hillsides will make it inevitable that sheep carrying the virus will mingle undetected with healthy animals when flocks are brought down to the farms in September, Laurence claimed.

'The lack of routine checks and confused methodology, poor routine and controversial interpretation of test results gives us little confidence that there is anything stopping the disease spreading like wildfire come the autumn.

'We could be back at square one within a matter of weeks of the sheep being brought down, which would leave us with no choice but to start culling and restriction all over again.'

By the end of this month, 100,000 sheep a week will be being tested for foot and mouth and by the autumn, Defra claims, levels will have risen to 140,000 per week.

Laurence concedes these are suitable levels but says the Gov ernment has endangered the recovery process by failing to reach this standard three months ago.

'The Government is so desperate not to do what they call scaremongering, and we call facing the facts, that they have not moved anything like quickly enough to stop it happening all over again,' he said. 'They have failed to learn from any lessons from the past year and there seems to be no impetus at all on their part to prevent this disaster recurring.'

Baroness Byford, Conservative spokesman on rural affairs, also condemned the Government: 'The RSPCA is quite right to raise this: if the Government doesn't handle this problem quickly, we could see a resurgence of the disease in no time at all.'

Richard Sibley, president of the independent British Cattle Veteri nary Association, has lobbied the Government since March to step up the rate of blood tests. 'This is something we're all desperately worried about,' he said. 'We need to test 1.3 million sheep in the next six weeks but even if tests go ahead at full capacity from now on, it will take 14 weeks to get all the tests completed.'

Professor Joe Brownlie, a pathologist at the Royal Veterinary College in London and an independent adviser to the Government, offered to set up a laboratory to carry out the tests four months ago. 'We were told Defra had it all in hand,' he said. 'We could have had the labs up and running in less than two weeks. It's hard to justify how it's taken another four months to establish what we offered to create all that time ago.'

But Defra claims that the 0.16 per cent infection rate identified in the 300,000 blood tests completed on sheep grazing in areas within a three-mile radius of farms where outbreaks have taken place proves that there is little cause for alarm.

'These sort of warnings are totally irresponsible: on the evidence we have so far, we're quite confident that there's quite a low level of unidentified infection, although I'm not saying there's no infection at all,' said Elliot Morley, the Animal Health Minister. 'There's a risk when the sheep come down from the uplands but we're doing our best to quantify that risk.'

But David McDowell, an RSPCA foot and mouth adviser to the Government, estimates the true figure of sheep carriers could be closer to 10 per cent.

'The epidemic could be up to pre vious levels within two weeks of the sheep being brought down,' he said. 'Defra's tests are hit and miss, and secretive to boot; they've refused to make public how they're going to interpret the results and we're not even certain what tests they're doing.'

The Government claimed last week that the epidemic is well on its way to being under control, ignoring warnings from the National Farmers' Union about unidentified pockets of infection to reopen 118,000 miles of countryside rights of way and promising that remaining restrictions would be removed by Friday.

Ian Johnson, the NFU spokesman for the South West, has condemned their confidence, pointing out that 10 new outbreaks were confirmed last Wednesday, the highest number for some time.

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