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I COULD HAVE STOPPED FMD

A government vet admitted that if it were not for his blunders, the devastating 2001 foot and mouth disaster may never have happened.

The revelation led to renewed calls last night for wide-ranging compensation and a full public inquiry into the epidemic.

The WMN has seen a document written by the vet who inspected the Northumberland farm of Bobby Waugh just days before the first case of the disease was discovered there on February 19, 2001.

Jim Dring, a veterinary officer with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), admitted his failings led to the outbreak.

Around a fortnight before the first outbreak on Mr Waugh's pig farm, Mr Dring renewed the farmer's swill feeding licence.

In a document apparently submitted to the Anderson Inquiry into the foot and mouth crisis, the vet wrote: "Had this inspection been more rigorous than it was, had the licence not been renewed, or renewed only subject to radical revision of the Waughs' patently deficient feeding technique, then this awful 2001 foot and mouth epidemic would never have come about."

The investigation conducted by Dr Iain Anderson was criticised because interviews with officials and Ministers - including Prime Minister Tony Blair - were carried out behind closed doors.

Although the vet's statement is headed "To: The Anderson Inquiry", no mention of it was made in the inquiry's report.

Mr Dring yesterday said that he stood by what he wrote in the document, dated October 5, 2001. But he stressed that the two pages seen by the WMN were only a small part of a 27-page report.

The WMN contacted Maff's successor, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) yesterday, but was unable to obtain the full document.

Although it cannot be placed into context, because of the lack of the other pages of Mr Dring's submission, his final paragraph reads: "Whatever their thinking and whatever their behaviour, there must have been a reason, some reason, why that seems or seemed valid to the Waughs.

"That such a reason might occur to them but not (until too late) to me, their Maff inspector, constitutes a failure of the imagination on my part which, allied to the failures of perception noted above, is hard to forgive.

"After all, a mere ten days before foot and mouth virus was introduced into this pig herd, and at a time when illicit feeding practices were clearly in train, and had been for some time, I inspected this premises with a view to renewing the Waughs' Article 26 licence.

"Had this inspection been more rigorous than it was, had the licence not been renewed, or renewed only subject to radical revision of the Waughs' patently deficient feeding technique, then this awful 2001 foot and mouth epidemic would never have come about. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and between that and total blindness is a long way.

"All the same, my feeling now, eight months on, is that in January 2001 I tended more to the latter than the former, with consequences which could scarce have been worse."

Robert Persey, a former East Devon pig farmer who backed the attempt in 2002 to force a public inquiry through the High Court, provided the WMN with a copy of the document.

He said by showing that a member of Maff staff may have been responsible for the spread of foot and mouth, it supported the legal battle of swill feeders driven out of business when the use of swill was banned in the wake of the outbreak.

Guy Thomas-Everard, whose family successfully defeated attempts to carry out a cull at their Exmoor farm, said the disclosure was "extraordinary".

He added: "The first thing I think is that this is why they didn't want a public inquiry - they didn't want this coming out. The whole thing was caused by human error, it would seem."

Andrew George, MP for St Ives and the Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman, said Mr Dring's report was a "fundamental piece of information" that should have been put in the public domain. He added that the revelation raised questions about the "robustness" of the Anderson Inquiry.

Martin Hann, Devon chairman of the National Farmers' Union, said: "A public inquiry would probably have brought this document to light much earlier. The whole industry knows how badly it was handled."

A Defra spokesman said: "There is nothing new in this allegation. These issues have been raised before on a number of occasions.

"Jim Dring's primary role as a state veterinary service vet was to check the welfare of the animals on the farm, and the stock welfare at the time of his last visit prior to the foot and mouth outbreak was satisfactory."

smarsden@westernmorningnews.co.uk