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11:00 - 28 October 2004

There are two responses to threat. The more widespread and desirable is that induced by adrenaline, which stimulates us, as appropriate, to fight or flight. The other - the response of the cornered weakling, of the deeply dispirited or of the infant - is a refusal to confront the danger. The person or animal thus afflicted habitually covers his or her eyes or ears in hope that the threat will simply go away. In relation to foot and mouth disease, the Government demonstrated all the classic traits of infantilism. First, it denied that there was a problem. It repeatedly maintained that the disease was under control while we on the ground saw the flames dancing on the horizon and a great black pall of smoke filling the sky, heard the sobbing of farmers, the jostling and the last, lowing protests of livestock, the reports and occasional roars of guns, and smelled the stench of putrid flesh all about us.

Government then threw a tantrum. No matter that the action that it took was too late and illegal. It embarked on a killing spree. Hundreds of thousands of perfectly healthy animals were needlessly, ruthlessly slaughtered.

Finally, desperate to hold an election, it clenched its fists in its eyes and pretended that the whole nasty business was not happening. To their enduring shame, many of the media indulged this pretence.

There were other childish aspects to the Government's response to something which positively refused to respond to statute or focus groups. It refused to do its homework - it was plain that no one had read the Northumberland Report on the previous outbreak - and, once the new epidemic was at last contained, refused to acknowledge its guilt.

Although we pressed for a public inquiry into a disease whose mishandling had cost untold grief and dire consequences, not just to farming but to tourism and all rural business, we were assured that any such inquiry would not be in the public interest. We had to content ourselves with the far from exhaustive Anderson inquiry instead.

Laws were hastily passed retrospectively to sanction Government actions. Nothing was done to reverse the decline in the number of abattoirs which had so imperilled bio-security. Nothing was done to control the illegal import of meat which had triggered the epidemic. Policy appears to be to trust that it will not happen again, and, if it does, to kill again, with the same callous indiscrimination.

Now a video of Bobby Waugh's Burnside Farm has been released. Shot by Northumberland Trading Standards Department four days after the outbreak of foot and mouth, it is a record of unremitting squalor, bad husbandry and conditions in which any infection would thrive. Yet this was the farm to which Government vet Jim Dring granted a licence, this the farm in which the epidemic germinated.

Mr Dring was later to acknowledge, with hugely commendable honesty and courage, that if he had been more zealous the foot and mouth disaster could have been averted.

It is plain that these were the ideal conditions for the growth and dissemination of infection. It is plain too that, as in any profession, there always will be a small percentage of farmers who, for reasons of shiftlessness or mental or physical illness, permit the conditions of their farms and livestock so to decay. It is plain that individual vets may be depressed, overworked or under pressure and so incapable of making apt decisions to safeguard the nation.

For all that, Mr Dring's brave statement nor this video were submitted to the Anderson Inquiry.

"Was the vet under pressure from the Ministry?" asked St Ives MP Andrew George last night. "Were his actions being monitored? How did anything so patently dangerous pass official scrutiny? If there is one thing that farming does not need, it is further intrusive regulation, but this demanded just clear regulation and common sense. Neither, it seems, was present in 2001. How can the Anderson Inquiry call itself the 'lessons learned' inquiry when these fundamental questions as to the epidemic's genesis have not even been addressed?"

No doubt the Government will prefer once more to turn its back on the problem, in the mistaken belief that lightning does not strike twice in the same place. As any rural dweller will tell them, it does.