June 21, 2002 The Daily Telegraph (London) by Robert UhligTHE Government ignored warnings from the State Veterinary Service that Britain was unprepared for a foot and mouth epidemic, a National Audit Office report disclosed yesterday.
Jim Scudamore, Chief Veterinary Officer, was told in February 1999 - two years before the outbreak - that the service's resources could quickly be overwhelmed because of the speed at which the disease might spread.
He was given the recommendation of "enhancing arrangements to gear up resources". But Richard Eales, director of the NAO, said the Government "did not heed that warning" and millions were squandered as officials "struggled to keep costs under control" during the battle to contain the epidemic. The assessment came in an audit office report which found that the crisis cost the public sector more than pounds 3 billion and the private sector more than pounds 5 billion.
"We do not talk about negligence," said Mr Eales. "We talk about what the department could have and should have done. And here was a report making clear warnings and the department did not take notice of them."
Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, which will be questioning the rural affairs department on the report next month, said the Government had "showed a complete lack of imagination" in its planning, which was "characterised by complacency and lack of foresight".
The watchdog's report said Mr Scudamore had "expressed his concern" in 2000 that several "key issues" identified in the Drummond report had "not been resolved some two years after they had been identified".
"Existing contingency plans in many areas had not been updated because of other priorities and limited resources.
"In addition, a high turnover of administrative staff, and the resignation or retirement of experienced veterinary and technical staff had impaired the service's ability to react.
"The department had not had time to address fully the slaughter and disposal of carcasses, training of staff in preparedness for an outbreak, updating of contingency plans and epidemiological capacity to deal with investigations about spread of the disease if there were an outbreak."
Mr Eales said that because of those failures the Government was overwhelmed by the epidemic and had "no conception of the wider impact it could have on other industries besides agriculture.
"No thought had been given to the effects on industries such as tourism."
Mr Eales said the Government's lack of preparedness meant the Agriculture Ministry was slow to involve other agencies, such as the Army, and it simply ran out of vets. "The national movement ban was not imposed until three days after the onset of the disease and with hindsight should have been imposed on day one."
According to the report, because the ministry and later the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were overwhelmed, the Government had to "pay a premium to get things done at maximum possible speed".
Many contracts, which would normally be put out to tender, were awarded without competition.
Aspects of some contracts were initially agreed orally. "When some contracts came to be written and formalised it was sometimes difficult for the parties involved to recall the detail of what had been agreed," the report said.
David Lidington, shadow Defra secretary, said: "This report confirms what many have known since last year: the Government was ill prepared, slow to react and bungled key decisions during the crucial early stages of the outbreak."