The truth still lies buried in Britain's empty fields

February 21, 2002 The Times (London) by Magnus Linklater
Every day there are new doubts about the official version of foot-and-mouth

Inscribed on the memorial to Max Perutz, the Nobel prizewinning biologist, who died earlier this month, are the words: "In Science, Truth Always Wins." It is a fine statement. Except that sometimes the battle seems never-ending.

Exactly a year ago, the first case of foot-and-mouth was detected in Britain. It was a year which saw an epidemic running out of control, animal slaughter on a horrendous scale, bitter divisions among scientists and farmers, a massive economic price, which is still being paid. Yet we seem no closer to learning the lessons. There has been no public inquiry, and there are no plans to hold one. The various investigations being held up and down the country hear evidence in private, and will not publish the results for many months. Even the Prime Minister is to give his evidence in secret. His statement to the Royal Society will not be recorded, only "minuted". As a symbol of openness, it takes some beating.

Meanwhile, the Government's inner team of scientific advisers remains resolute in defending the action it took. According to its members, the only thing wrong with the killing was that it did not happen fast enough. There was nothing flawed about the science, the methodology, the analysis or the strategy. Truth, as far as they are concerned, is already in the bag.

This week, however, the first serious cracks began to appear in the official version of events. In an interview carried by Science and Public Affairs, a publication of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr David Shannon, newly-retired Chief Scientist at Defra, which handled the crisis, breaks ranks with his colleagues and raises serious questions about what was done.

Dr Shannon accuses the committee which advised the Prime Minister of having "enormous influence on policy without having formal responsibility for the consequences of its advice". He questions the range of expertise available to the Government, and calls it "an unusual group" whose participants were often unavailable for vital meetings.

The committee needed more independent expertise on diagnostics, more practical expertise on the use of vaccines, more expertise on serology (blood testing). No account was taken of the environmental consequences of what was being done. Targets were not achieved, outbreaks were incorrectly predicted. Proper advice from scientists with practical experience of handling the disease was not sought. Above all, the public was not kept informed. "We should seek to inform the public and let it arrive at its own view," says Dr Shannon. "And experts must listen to the public; that's one of the important things we must do much more of. Understand where the public's coming from. For example, about vaccination for foot-and-mouth."

Hallelujah! For those of us who have been saying much of this for the past nine months, Dr Shannon's view is music to our ears. Behind the carefully chosen phrases lurks a devastating condemnation, not only of the scientific expertise available to handle the epidemic, but of the Government's whole approach to science and policy.

Not surprisingly, Dr Shannon has been subjected to immediate attack. Writing in the same issue of the magazine,the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, challenges him on every point. The models, he says, were right, the blood-testing properly done, the epidemiology correct, the best scientific advice was taken, the public properly consulted. So nothing fundamental need be changed next time around. "With the help of an informal group, put together fast and working flat out," he writes, "I was able to provide the best available scientific advice to Government at the time when it was most needed. We must now build on that experience."

Well, they can't both be right. And if a government team is so openly divided on such fundamental issues, then the case for a thoroughgoing, independent, and open public inquiry cannot be long resisted. The facts alone are beginning seriously to challenge Professor King's bland version of events. Some truly horrendous figures are beginning to emerge from some of the local inquiries around the country. In Gloucestershire, Hereford, Worcestershire and Shropshire, where 872 farms were culled, only 33 tested positive. That is, 26 farms lost all their animals for every one that was positively identified as infected. Of the 2,030 so-called infected premises, only 1,728 were actually tested, and only 1,327 were confirmed as positive. Yet the Government reported the figures to the European Union as 2,030 confirmed cases.

It now seems that controversial three-kilometre cull of healthy animals may have been illegal. The responsible minister, Elliot Morley, told the House of Commons last November that "at the present time we do not have powers for a firebreak cull". Only a full inquiry could equate a statement like this with the grim reality of what happened.

If Tony Blair is minded to reclaim the moral ground he has lost in this matter, he could do worse than study the way a wartime Prime Minister handled his relations with government scientists.

In his book Churchill and the Prof, Thomas Wilson comments that Winston Churchill was fascinated by science but never simply accepted what his advisers told him. He wanted to hear "the full expression of different views" before he made up his mind. From then on, the decision was his.

And if a scientist got things wrong, there was only one honourable course to take -as Sir Henry Tizard, chairman of the Aeronautic Research Committee, found when he advised, wrongly, that radio beams could not follow the contours of the earth. He resigned.

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