May 8, 2002 The Daily Telegraph(London) by Charles CloverTHE foot and mouth epidemic could have been brought under control more quickly if strict quarantine procedures had been imposed at once, the man who led the Army's operation in Cumbria said yesterday.
Brig Alex Birtwhistle, who has since retired, told the first day of an inquiry in Kendal that some farmers helped spread the disease through "sheer idleness".
His remarks are backed up by the fact that the disease was eventually stopped in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Northumberland only after road checkpoints were set up to seek out potentially infective material on farmers' cars - which also caught some Government slaughtermen. Brig Birtwhistle, 54, said that when he was asked to support the Ministry of Agriculture in Cumbria there was no national contingency plan for carcass disposal from an outbreak on such a scale.
He said: "I immediately noted a long delay between diagnosis and slaughter, which was running at four or five days. I noted an absence of resources: trucks, slaughtermen and guns. Most critically, there was a backlog of animals lying on the ground."
One estimate was that 50,000 animals were awaiting disposal. "I believe it was more than twice that," he said. "Some of those bodies had been there for two or three weeks." A policy on disposing of the carcasses was not available. "No risk assessment had been carried out at national or regional level."
He said Tony Blair asked him if he thought the procedures in place would hold up. "I said no," Brig Birtwhistle told the inquiry panel. Mr Blair told him "to get on with it".
The brigadier said he had 130 officers in the area and was "grossly overstretched". "There were 30 to 40 outbreaks a day and we neither had a disposal site nor a clear policy. It was necessary to instil confidence in the public that we could handle the disease, but, to be frank, I was not sure that we could."
The Ministry of Agriculture, now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was "outstanding", bar "two individual exceptions".
The inquiry, led by Prof Phil Thomas, will take evidence for a month. It was set up after the Government refused to hold a full public inquiry.