Muckspreader 29 juneUnder the codename ‘Operation Hornbeam’, Defra recently staged a exercise to test its ‘contingency plan’ for any future outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Presided over by ‘Baby Ben’ Bradshaw, this bizarre charade inevitably revived memories of the FMD fiasco in 2001, one of the worst governmental failures of modern times. One recalls the illegal slaughter of 9 million healthy animals, the failure to vaccinate, the obscene funeral pyres, the closure of the countryside, the devastation of the rural economy. On the most conservative estimate, this all cost £8 billion, paid for by taxpayers, farmers, rural businesses and the tourist industry.
What remained the best-kept secret of the FMD debacle, however, was the extent to which it represented a system failure not just of the British government but also of the EU. The chief reason why so many of the Maffia’s blunders seemed to contradict the lessons learned from Britain’s previous FMD epidemic in 1967/8 was that, since 1985, policy for handling FMD had been handed over to Brussels. It was Brussels which had laid down all the general guidelines which, in 2001, left farmers and vets so baffled and which contributed to the general air of utter chaos and confusion.
But there was one crucial respect in which EU policy was not obeyed, because the British government was incapable of complying with it. Under EU rules, the Maffia should immediately have resorted to emergency vaccination, which might have saved the lives of those 9 million animals and most of that £8 billion. But the UK government simply did not have the resources to do so.
In 1993, the European Commission approved a ‘contingency plan’ submitted by John Gummer which was laughably inadequate, not imagining that Britain might be faced with more than 10 FMD outbreaks. In 1999, the Commission actually warned that a mass-epidemic of FMD was “highly likely”. This came with a checklist of conditions for launching an emergency vaccination programme. But the Maffia took not the blindest notice, so that in 2001, although almost all the EU’s conditions were met within days, Nick Brown was unable to meet the crisis in accordance with the rules.
This was why Brussels was determined that such a debacle must never happen again. It was all very well for Mr Blair not to allow a proper enquiry. But at least the EU wanted to avoid any repetition of such a disaster, which was why last year it produced the 226-page directive 2003/85, laying down in exhaustive detail how any future FMD outbreaks must be handled.
No more mass-slaughter of animals. No more funeral pyres. No more closure of the countryside to tourists. Above all, as the measure of first resort, the use of emergency vaccination. Furthermore, every country must draw up a contingency plan and carry out an exercise to test it, by 30 June 2004 when the directive came into force. Hence, on 29 and 30 June, Baby Ben and his officials staging the charade of Operation Hornbeam. This was supposed to show what should be happening by Day Seven of an epidemic which had already spread to four different parts of the country. But by this time, the Defra vets suggested, there had only been eleven individual ‘incidents’ (in 2001 there were already 57 outbreaks before the disease was first identified). And only now, on Day Seven, was the minister supposedly considering the very limited use of vaccination. For all the Commission’s huffing and puffing, Defra, it appears, has not heard or learned a thing.