Alan Beat comments on Lord Whitty's speech in the Second Reading Debate in the Lords for the Animals Health amendment Bill

Our comment: In this speech, Lord Whitty makes clear just what the government intends to achieve with this Bill; he also reveals the flawed science behind those intentions. ....

There is a clear admission here that existing legislation does not provide for precautionary slaughter - in other words, the government lacked the necessary legal powers to enforce a blanket contiguous cull policy.

But the chilling future is then laid out: The Bill alters the circumstance in which an animal can be culled from one in which exposure is the issue to one in which prevention is the key. Let no-one doubt what this means. Next time, firebreak culling of healthy animals will be a central plank of control policy, and we fear worse than contiguous culling. 3 km slaughter barriers were used (illegally) during the 2001 epidemic and were believed by some to have worked. Elliot Morley gave the specific example of how these new powers might be used, to the Standing Committee of the Commons, of mass precautionary slaughter under the virus plume from an infected pig farm, which may travel 10, 20 or indeed many more kms from source under certain atmospheric conditions. Will any UK farm be without risk of slaughter?

When Morley first introduced this Bill he made sweeping allegations that resisting farmers delaying the contiguous cull had caused further spread of disease and more animals to be slaughtered overall. He said that this was a matter of fact, and on record. However, when challenged over specific localities where sufficient evidence has emerged, he has been forced to acknowledge that his allegations did not apply to those areas. The government case has steadily shrunk down until it now rests entirely upon the two small areas referred to above, namely the Brecon Beacons and the Thirsk blue box zone. Across the rest of the UK, the available evidence is overwhelmingly that resisting farms did not develop disease, despite Morleys earlier false allegations to the contrary.

So the onus lies very much with the government to provide the evidence that supports their case in these two remaining areas - because this appears to be their sole justification for the measures contained within the new Bill. The available facts need to be placed in the public domain for examination and debate. Government allegations are not enough when they have proved to be wrong in respect of other areas. And what we already know about the two remaining areas does not inspire any confidence either.

In the Brecon Beacons, one farm had inadvertently sent infected sheep up to a heft on the mountain. Subsequently five hefts surrounding this flock were found to have positive antibodies with a declining incidence as distance from the source increased. Nevertheless, at the insistence of Page Street a contiguous cull was carried out beyond these five hefts, despite no evidence of spread beyond them. The accumulated evidence from many previous outbreaks around the world is that infection dies out naturally in dispersed sheep grazing extensively across open land. Where is the governments evidence that the Beacons outbreak was any different to the norm?

In the case of the Thirsk area, we must remember that support among farmers for the contiguous culling policy had progressively fallen during the epidemic as the low risk of infection and the true legal position became more widely appreciated. So it was hardly surprising that one in three of the farms earmarked for contiguous culling around Thirsk decided to appeal. Note that many of these appeals were made to DEFRA in accordance with existing rights. Out of ten appeals upheld by DEFRA on veterinary risk assessment grounds, the government claim that two premises subsequently developed the disease, resulting in further contiguous culling. However, we need to retain a sense of proportion here. Did any disease spread beyond the boundaries of these two premises? It appears not. Are two cases across the whole country an unacceptable risk? We think not. Would these two cases justify draconian slaughter across the whole country, against all the other evidence that exists? Again, we think not.

But first, let us all see the evidence upon which his case is based.

Moving on to vaccination, Whitty makes the statement Vaccination, even more than culling, will fail if there are loopholes in the system. This statement reveals a basic ignorance of the way that vaccination works. As a vaccination programme rolls out, the amount of virus excreted by vaccinates is drastically reduced, below the threshold at which they are infectious to other animals. Once a critical proportion of the population has been vaccinated, considered to be around 80%, there are insufficient hosts remaining for the infection to sustain itself and the virus dies out. These principles apply on both a farm and regional scale, so that a proportion of unvaccinated animals present no threat of recrudescence of disease.

On the subject of scrapie, Whitty says Scrapie eradication will, of course, also deal with the potential, but as yet theoretical, possibility of BSE being present in the sheep flock. Of course? Once again, he is wrong on a matter of scientific fact. There is clear experimental evidence that scrapie resistance has no bearing on the susceptibility of sheep to be artificially infected with BSE. Eradicating scrapie will not confer any resistance to the theoretical risk of BSE in the national sheep flock (ref. Professor Ferguson-Smith of Cambridge University ) and for Whitty to claim that it will do so is extraordinary.

His underlying reason for misleading the House may be contained in his own words to ensure that the outcome is a scrapie, BSE and other TSE-free flock in this country. That will give us a great advantage, not only in terms of the health of our animals but also in terms of international trade. We look forward to seeing his detailed cost-benefit analysis showing the advantages of pursuing a hugely expensive eradication programme that will not achieve its declared purpose according to current scientific knowledge.

In summary, Lord Whitty fails to make his case for the new Bill on every count. Without clear supporting evidence in the public domain, he has no legitimate claim for any extension to existing powers, and he has no justification to eliminate scrapie from the national flock.