Lessons Not Learned  or   The Anderson Report
 
article by Emma Tennant in the Spectator this week
 
His report is a feeble whitewash and a bitter disappointment. So much is left out.
The politicians have gone on holiday, and the silly season is here again.  If you are bored with the nonsense in the papers, why not try some of the reports on the 2001 FMD epidemic?  The Royal Society of London, the Royal  Society of Edinburgh, and the Lessons Learned Enquiry have all published their findings recently.  They make fascinating reading.
 
Dr Iain Anderson, chairman of the Lessons Learned Enquiry, sets the tone of his report by saying that "the nation will not be best served by seeking to blame individuals."
 
Up to a point, Lord Copper. What this means is that, though government bungling turned a serious matter into an unprecedented catastrophe, nobody is expected to take responsibility.  What strange times we live in.  If a hard-pressed teacher smacks a child, or an exhausted nurse makes a mistake, he or she is mercilessly pilloried and their career ruined.  But when the politicians and their advisers get things wrong to the tune of £10 billion and 70 suicides, they duck all responsibility.
 
At the height of the  epidemic Mr Blair announced that he was taking personal charge of the battle against FMD - and in a recent television broadcast he emphasised that, "If you're Prime Minister, then the buck stops with you."  I wonder if our Tony knows the old saying "There's no such thing as a bad regiment, only bad officers"?
 
So what did they do, these bad officers?  For a start they told lies - lots of lies.  The first casualties of the disaster were truth and its twin, trust.  Over and over again the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown and the Chief Vet, Jim Scudamore, said that the outbreak was under control when any fool could see that the virus was spreading like wildfire.
 
Dr Anderson gives one shocking example.  On MArch 11th, Brown told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme that he was "absolutely certain" that the disease was under control.  What this remark did, of course, was to create a cynical and dishonest atmosphere, and to destroy what little trust still existed between the government and the whole rural community - not just farmers.
 
But, incredibly, Dr Anderson comments that "It is understandable that the Minister should have sought to reassure the public... "  This remark shows that Dr Anderson inhabits the same twilight world as our politicians.  Nothing is clear, nothing is definite,and there is no such thing as right or wrong.  We are in the gloomy swamp of moral relativism, Matthew Arnold's "Darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night."
 
Dr Anderson goes on to say, even more absurdly, that "The Minister's comments also sent a message to Government as a whole that the outbreak was being comprehensively managed by MAFF."  Surely our canny Prime Minister is not taken in by his own cabinet ministers?  Anderson stresses the lack of formal "trigger points" to flag up the moment at which a local problem becomes national, and recommends a new horizon-scanning procedure to solve this problem.  In fact, all that is needed is common sense.  Most people scan the horizon perfectly well by watching Channel Four News, reading the papers or talking to people on the ground.
 
So why didn't the Government listen to th MPs whose constituencies were suffering so terribly?  This is one of the many questions that Anderson fails to answer.  David Maclean, MP for Penrith and the Border, begged the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency for Cumbria for weeks before the Army was eventually called in and COBR opened.  But no-one in London listened.
 
Dr Anderson makes mistakes of his own.  I was, for instance, surprised to read that "the dealer took them (the sheep) to Longtown Market in Hexham" when every schoolboy knows that Longtown and Hexham are towns 30 miles apart and in separately counties.  Howlers like this do nothing to inspire confidence.
 
One of our farms was culled in early April as a result of what was then called a "clinical diagnosis", which sounds convincing, but in fact just means the vet's best guess.  Cases like this were called "slaughter on suspicion", most ;likely to make the figures look better in the run up to the election.  Our vet wanted a second opinion, but this was refused by MAFF HQ at Page Street in London, where decisions were being taken.  Without waiting for the diagnosis to be confirmed by tests, MAFF began to slaughter our neighbours' healthy animals.  The tests came back negative: the whole thing was a terrible mistake.
 
But our farm was now classified as "Infected Premises" and there was no way of removing that label.  Once an IP, always an IP.  It meant, for instance, that the whole place was subject to an incredibly expensive and absolutely pointless, cleansing and disinfecting programme.  Then an official rang me to say that we would not be allowed to restock for four months. A whole summer's grass would be wasted.  I am not normally a foul-mouthed person, but at that point I let fly with a spot of verbal abuse, as swearing is now called.
 
Even as I did so, I felt sorry for the official at the other end of the line.  He had not chosen the unscientific, impractical and barbaric policy that he had to enforce.
 
So who was responsible for the debacle?  Dr Anderson's report poses more questions than answers.  He suggests a few unconvincing explanations for the month-long delay in calling in the Army and opening COBR, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room which is used to manage civil emergencies.  I suggest that he asks the Parliamentary Recording Unit (tel. 020 7219 5511) for the video of the Public Accounts Committee held on 3 July 2002.  There he will see brain Bender, Permanent Secretary at MAFF's successor DEFRA, say that the delay was due to indecision at the highest levels of government.
 
Most important of all, who was responsible for the extraordinary experiment of killing healthy animals on farms which were either contiguous to, or within 3 km of, every IP?  This unscientific, unworkable policy was adopted by the government in preference to the use of vaccination.  It made British politicians and scientists the laughing stock of the world.
 
None of these reports provides a satisfactory explanation.  Dr Anderson makes an extraordinary  statement in his chapter on the pre-emptive slaughter.  He says that in Scotland, "informally at first, and, as far as we have been able to discover, without any scientific evidence, plans were rapidly worked out for a 3 km pre-emptive sheep cull." The idea apparently came from the Scottish Executive and NFU Scotland, who worked together very closely.  Why did Anderson not have access to records of the discussions which led to this bizarre policy?  The boffins who produced the admirably clear report of the Royal Society of Edinburgh say that the pre-emptive 3 km cull of sheep was undertaken on the advice of the State Veterinary Service.  Who is right?
 
Wherever the idea came from, it was announced on 15th March (though not implemented immediately).  Meanwhile, panic was rising.  On March 21, Professor Roy Anderson, Head of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College, told the BBC's Newsnight that the disease was out of control.  Dr Anderson says that he was "unable to find a clear account of decision making at around that time...Brian Bender told us that there was a great deal of confusion."  After  26 March the Chief Scientist, Professor David King, took the lead and, following advice from Professor Anderson's group of modellers, none of whom had any previous experience of FMD, persuaded the government to cull all animals on contiguous premises.  "The FMD experts and the pro-vaccination lobby had been sidelined, though the debate went on until Easter.
 
Dr Anderson has failed to find out what happened at this crucial stage.  He says that "some of the most important (decisions) taken during the outbreak were recorded in the most perfunctory way and sometimes not at all...This has made the task of conducting an audit extremely difficult..."
 
These statements are extraordinary.  Important meetings must have been minuted and decisions recorded.  There are three possible explanations for Dr Andserson's failure to find the records.  Perhaps the relevant documents were so embarrassing to the government that they were destroyed. Assuming that they still exist, Dr Anderson has either seen them, but, due to a psychological block, forgotten what they said, or the authorities have deliberately concealed the papers.  If the government is serious in its espousal of "open-ness" and "transparency" it must tell the truth.
 
I attended the meeting held by Dr Anderson in Lockerbie.  He came across as a decent and open-minded man who was seriously trying to get at the truth.  His report is a feeble whitewash and a bitter disappointment.  So much is left out.  Occasional quotes from farmers, vets and other front-line troops hint at the story that remains to be told.  A Devon G.P., for instance, is quoted as saying "It is a tragedy that an animal illness has been translated to one that had a severe impact on the mental health of our patients" But this important point is not explained or put in context.
 
It has been well said that the Anderson Report reads like a court case in which only the defence lawyers have been heard.  The saddest long-term result of the 2001 FMD disaster is the destruction of trust.  It will not be restored until the Government comes clean about what happened and why.  Only then will the lessons be well and truly learned.
 
Emma Tennant
8th August 2002