Maff's 'nightmare' as foot and mouth jumps 40-miles

April 8, 2001 Sunday Telegraph by David Harrison and David Cracknell

THE foot and mouth epidemic is threatening to engulf the whole of Britain after the virus spread to a previously unaffected part of the East Coast yesterday.

The latest outbreak was confirmed at a farm near Whitby, North Yorkshire, 40 miles from the nearest case - the virus's biggest "jump" since the crisis began. It came the day after the virus had made its biggest previous movement - 30 miles to the Scottish Borders.

The size of the transfers shattered the Government's claims that it was beginning to get on top of the disease and horrified officials at the Ministry of Agriculture. As the number of cases rose to 1,089 yesterday, one official told The Telegraph: "We felt we were starting to win the battle and it is worrying that we have new cases so far away from other outbreaks and in areas that have so far been free of the disease."

A spokesman for the National Farmers' Union said: "This is the nightmare scenario. It is a major setback and awful news for farmers, the tourism industry and the Government. It now looks like no area of the country is safe. We have to make sure everything possible is done to stop the disease spreading."

Ben Gill, the NFU president, said he was "concerned" about the cases in areas remote from the centres of the outbreak. The outbreak, at Ashes farm, Ruswarp, on the outskirts of Whitby, also dealt a serious blow to the Government's campaign to persuade tourists that large areas of Britain are open for business.

Whitby is heavily dependent on tourism and is only a mile from the North York Moors National Park. A national parks official said yesterday: "This is devastating news at a time when we were hoping that we had avoided the disease and the tourism industry was trying to get back to something resembling normal."

Peter Dahl, the area's director of tourism, said: "The rural areas have already been badly affected and we are worried that this will make things worse and make it very difficult for pubs, restaurants, hotels and other businesses to recover in the summer." Two foot and mouth-free counties, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire, said yesterday that their footpaths would remain closed, despite pleas from ministers for them to show they were "open for business".

The Whitby outbreak was confirmed after the farmer, Colin Holtby, became concerned about a calf that was lame and started slavering. Maff slaughtered the 70 cattle and 110 sheep within hours of diagnosis but the outbreak has brought fear along the Esk valley where there are dozens of mainly small farms.

One farmer who is less than two miles from the infected farm, told The Telegraph: "We were never complacent and we knew that there was always a risk, but we thought the virus might creep closer gradually, not come bounding over the moors to the east coast."

The cause of the latest outbreak is not known but the most likely explanation is that the virus was carried on the wind. A report after the 1967 crisis said that, after the initial incubation period, almost all new cases were caused by winds carrying the virus. A 1980 outbreak on the Isle of Wight was caused by a windborne virus from France.

The virus travels best in wet, windy conditions. Philip Eden, The Telegraph weather forecaster, said it was "more than plausible" that the virus had been carried from infected areas by south-westerly winds and rain in the past 10 days. Last night Ken Tyrrell, a leading vet in the 1967 outbreak, said the Government had "failed to take into account air transmission".

He said: "Many of us were calling for ring vaccination two weeks ago which would have helped prevent this. It makes a nonsense of the Government's decision to cull animals within a two-mile radius of an infected farm." The news of the Whitby outbreak was relayed to Tony Blair, who last week ordered a wholesale reorganisation of Whitehall after being shocked by the blunders of civil servants during the foot and mouth crisis.

The Prime Minister has expressed concern at the incompetence and lack of knowledge of some officials at the Ministry of Agriculture in particular. He has asked Lord Simon, the former minister and the chairman of BP, to take a hard look at how the Civil Service can be reformed in view of the lessons learnt during the outbreak.

Mr Blair believes the peer will bring his business experience to the running of Government departments and expects him to recommend the greater use of performance-related pay and the break-up of large and cumbersome ministries. Since taking over the day-to-day management of the crisis, Mr Blair has been particularly irritated by the inability of Maff officials to provide accurate figures on the spread of the disease.

He was alarmed that the ministry failed to use a computer system purchased from New Zealand which is specifically designed to emulate the spread of agricultural diseases. A ministerial aide said: "The foot and mouth epidemic has shown how slow civil servants can be at responding to the orders of ministers."

Zoos are to be allowed to vaccinate rare breeds of animal against foot and mouth disease by Maff after a ruling by European vets that animals can be vaccinated without Britain losing its official "disease-free" status.

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