Fears of new outbreak still stalk the land

February 18, 2002 The Daily Telegraph (London) by Anthony King
FEARS of a new foot and mouth outbreak still stalk the land, according to a new YouGov survey for The Daily Telegraph. Moreover, a large majority of voters believe that the Government mishandled the last foot and mouth outbreak and cannot be relied on to improve its performance next time.

The days when anyone could say that "the man in Whitehall knows best" are clearly over. Roughly three quarters of YouGov's respondents have little or no confidence in the ability of the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs either to prevent or control any new crisis. The reputation of Britain's farming community has also taken a knock. Forty per cent of people say their opinion of "farming practices in the UK" has gone down as a result of the recent crisis. Fewer than one tenth that number say it has gone up.

According to YouGov, the foot and mouth crisis - coming on top of the BSE crisis - has further dented confidence in red meat. One in eight say they are buying less of it than a year ago. At the same time, there appears to have been no revulsion specifically against British meat. On the contrary, few say they avoid it and a large number claim that they actively seek it out.

One of the striking features of YouGov's findings is the greater pessimism of the rural community. Country dwellers are significantly more likely than city dwellers to believe that foot and mouth could re-emerge at any time and to lack confidence in the department that used to be Maff and is now Defra.

As the figures in the chart headed "Outbreak over?" make clear, the answer in a lot of people's minds to that question is "No" or "Not sure". Only 36 per cent believe that the foot and mouth outbreak "is now finally over". Considerably more are either unsure (11 per cent) or believe that "new cases may emerge at any time" (53 per cent).

Although the actions of the Government in combating the disease appeared to have broad public support before the general election last June, the public's judgment after the event is harsher. The figures in the chart headed "Verdict on Blair" speak for themselves.

Only one in four of YouGov's respondents reckon the Government handled the year-long crisis either "very well" or "fairly well". Three times that proportion, 75 per cent, believe the Government handled it "not very well" or "not at all well".

Moreover, the mass cull of uninfected as well as infected cattle is now deemed to have been unnecessary. YouGov asked: From what you know, do you think the mass slaughter of animals was necessary, or could it have been avoided by a programme of mass vaccination? Only 20 per cent now believe that the slaughter programme was essential. Far more, 72 per cent, are persuaded that a programme of mass vaccination was both feasible and desirable.

Some of the doubts about the Government's performance over foot and mouth may simply reflect current public doubts about its ability to handle any domestic crisis successfully. If that is so, these doubts have certainly spread to Defra.

YouGov asked its respondents to indicate how much confidence they have in the ability of the new department to prevent further outbreaks of foot and mouth disease or, failing that, to contain any outbreaks that occur.

As the findings in the chart headed "Doubts about Defra" make plain, three quarters of people harbour doubts about the department's ability to prevent new outbreaks and almost as many, 69 per cent, harbour similar doubts about its ability to contain them.

The verdict on farmers and farming practices is more mixed, with greater dubiety about some of the things farmers do than about who farmers are.

YouGov asked respondents to think about farmers in general and farming practices in the UK in particular and to say whether their opinion of each had gone up or down as a result of foot and mouth or stayed about the same.

The figures in the chart headed "Verdict on farmers" show that the farming community has won some friends over the past year and a larger number of enemies but that the overall balance of opinion has changed little.

But in the case of farming practices the verdict is less charitable. A mere six per cent of people say their opinion of farming practices in the UK has gone up.

The crisis appears to have had less effect on the shopper. As the figures in the chart headed "Buying habits" indicate, the great majority are buying neither more nor less red meat than last February; but the proportion consuming less (12 per cent) greatly exceeds the proportion consuming more (three per cent).

As for specifically British meat, the figures in the charts are unambiguous. More than half of people's habits have not changed; but 40 per cent say they prefer to buy British meat rather than imports. As can be seen, the proportion shying away from home-produced meat is minuscule.

Anthony King is professor of government at Essex

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