Foot and mouth: the blundersBefore the foot and mouth outbreak ravaged British farming, the government received a clear scientific warning of the danger. It failed to act. And after disaster struck, the decisions it made only increased and prolonged the crisis. Jonathan Leake reports
Five months before the worst disaster ever to hit British farming struck, John Ryan took the floor at a United Nations agriculture conference and delivered a stark message. Millions of animals were likely to die, the Irish veterinary scientist warned, and livestock farming was threatened with devastation. Foot and mouth disease (FMD) was certain to hit Europe, warned Ryan, and the impact could be worse than ever before.
The doomsaying could not have been blunter and yet, as a Sunday Times investigation into the FMD disaster reveals, the British authorities took no heed. And when the epidemic did strike, they were chronically unprepared and fatally disorganised.
As the disease finally peters out, the government has refused to hold an inquiry into the epidemic. If it did, it would reveal a catalogue of blunders: that the government had no up-to-date plan of action; that it did not even know where thousands of farms were; and that its handling of the crisis caused the epidemic to be at least a third bigger than it might have been.
The warnings were there at the conference in Bulgaria, where Ryan identified that a combination of intensified farming, increased animal movements and a virulent new strain meant the disease could spread with extraordinary rapidity.
The results of his study, he said, were so startling that he had repeated it. He had reached the same conclusion.
"FMD now presents a permanent threat of reintroduction to Europe," he said. "This is particularly apparent with the activities of the PanAsia type O strain."
That virus had been marching across the world, and the task of the conference was to assess the threat to Europe. Ryan was not the only concerned voice.
One of the the most significant came from Britain's Institute for Animal Health, which runs the world reference laboratory for foot and mouth at Pirbright, Surrey. Nick Knowles, a researcher, told how the strain had infected numerous countries that, like Britain, had been free of the disease for decades. The virus, Knowles concluded, was one of the most dangerous seen and "a major threat".
A few weeks later those warnings, along with a host of others from the meeting, landed on the desks of the chief veterinary officers of every European country. One recipient was Jim Scudamore, veterinary adviser to the British government.
What did the British authorities do in the face of such loud alarm bells? Scudamore read the reports and shelved them. "We knew that FMD was spreading but at the time we felt we had already taken all the right precautions," he said on Friday. "It is easy to be wise with hindsight, but at the time there seemed no other measures that we could have taken." Britain's rules on importing foodstuffs were tough on paper, though Scudamore was hamstrung by a lack of resources. But there was still plenty wrong with the surveillance system and contingency plans to deal with any outbreak of FMD - and the government knew it.
IN APRIL 2000 two senior civil servants presented the conclusions of a year-long investigation into Britain's "early warning system" for spotting disease outbreaks in livestock. The Veterinary Surveillance in England and Wales report told Nick Brown, then agriculture secretary, that the system had become woefully inadequate.
The first line of defence against diseases is the State Veterinary Service, which inspects farms and livestock. Successive governments had seen the service as an easy target for budget savings: between 1979 and 2001 field vets were reduced from about 500 to 286; and since the last big FMD outbreak 70-plus divisional offices had been cut to 23. Similarly, the government's veterinary laboratories, where animals that die from unusual diseases are sent for post- mortem examinations, had been cut from 28 to 16.
Worse, the government's contingency plan for handling an outbreak of FMD was hopelessly out of date. Drawn up in 1991, this was the document the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) would first turn to if an epidemic erupted. In July 2000 the ministry did conduct a revision of the plan; but the only obvious modifications were warnings that important elements of the plan now contravened European legislation and should be ignored.
Parts of the plan were almost useless. One page recommended that staff hire any heavy equipment needed from the National Rivers Authority - a body that was abolished in 1996. Another described how the worst likely outbreak would involve a maximum of 30 cases - and listed the few dozen staff that could deal with it. The idea that there might be thousands of cases was not addressed. On top of the lack of vets, there was another fundamental problem. Vets are only any use if you know where to send them. The ministry had no accurate list of farmers or their farms even though it was paying £1.3 billion in livestock subsidies each year.
Mike Christian, a vet who ran the Maff surveillance scheme around Longtown in Cumbria when the FMD epidemic was at its peak, described the Maff database as "absolutely useless". He said: "They had no idea on the number of farms or where they were. I was sent to some that had housing estates built on them. I was also sent to a pub, a garden centre and several barn conversions." Last week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the successor to Maff, admitted that at the start of the outbreak it had no idea of the precise location of 121,000 farms, of which 35,500 held livestock.
IN January 2001 all the elements were in place for a disaster. The disease had entered the country and a poor surveillance system had failed to spot it. It was spreading, it seems likely, among pigs at the farm of Bobby Waugh at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland.
In research released last week, John Wilesmith, professor of epidemiology with the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, described how the virus was probably carried by the wind to another farm five miles away at Prestwick Hall, where it infected sheep. From there, sheep were sent to other markets that spread the disease further. A large outbreak was now brewing. Wilesmith believes as many as eight of the main areas of the epidemic were infected before the first case was recognised. But the government was about to make a mistake that would worsen the epidemic by at least a third.
On Monday, February 19, Craig Kirby, a 29-year-old vet, noticed odd lesions on sows at Cheale Meats, a large abattoir in Essex. They were the first cases of FMD to be diagnosed in Britain for years.
Within hours Kirby had shut down the abattoir and called in the government vets. They began to trace all the abattoir's contacts - and found there were 600 places from which the disease could have come.
Scudamore and Brown, his boss, were faced with a crucial choice. Should they ban all animal movements to try to stop the disease from spreading? Or should they try to trace the individual contacts and cull every animal at risk? The warnings of how fast the new strain of FMD could travel were overlooked. Mindful of the previous year's fuel blockades, Brown rejected a ban on livestock movements, fearing it might lead to food shortages. "An immediate ban would have left animals in marketplaces all over Britain," recalled Scudamore. "We also feared that supermarkets would run out of meat."
It was three more days before a national ban on animal movements was imposed, during which tens of thousands of animals were shifted around the country.
Last week, Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University, an epidemiologist who has studied FMD for eight years, detailed research showing how that delay alone increased the size of the eventual epidemic by 33-50%.
Research by Defra shows that there were more than a dozen key movements of infected animals in those few days -- starting chains of infection that spread the disease from Cumbria to Anglesey, West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire, and from Devon to Wiltshire and Northamptonshire.
"From February 23 the scene was set. The disease was all over the country with about 70-80 infected farms," said Woolhouse. "The epidemic was inevitable and the only question was how best to deal with it."
WITH an outdated contingency plan, Maff clung to slaughtering infected animals and those at risk in surrounding areas. The systems for diagnosis and culling were overwhelmed, but the government and farmers stuck to their captive bolt guns.
When outbreaks of FMD occurred in France and Holland, the authorities had the advantage of being forewarned by the British experience. They acted with greater speed and flexibility. Using bans on animal movements, culling and vaccination, they eradicated the outbreaks within weeks.
In Britain hundreds of thousands of animals, many of them healthy, were being slaughtered. With an election looming Tony Blair was anxious to get the pictures of burning pyres off the television screens. Vaccination seemed to offer a way out - but again there was another government blunder.
In mid-March Blair began a series of private meetings to see if vaccination was viable. They culminated in a session at Chequers in April, attended by Brown, Scudamore, scientific advisers and supermarket executives. All supported vaccination in Cumbria and Devon.
But Blair had deliberately not invited Ben Gill, leader of the National Farmers' Union. It was a misjudgment that wasted yet more time. When Gill heard of the meeting he furiously demanded to see Blair. On April 18 Gill told Blair that farmers would not tolerate vaccination - not because it didn't work, but because it would prevent them selling their produce in Europe. Slaughter and compensation was a much more appealing option for farmers. Vaccination - for which Britain had no plan prepared - was effectively dead before it was even attempted. How much it might have helped is debatable. By this time it was becoming clear that Maff was beginning to get the epidemic under control. But the devastation was already huge. On the evening of June 7 2001, for example, as the polling stations for the general election were about to close, a slaughter team arrived at the farm of John Falshaw in Lancashire to dispose of more than 250 cattle and 350 sheep. By the evening of June 8, with Blair returned victorious to Downing Street, Falshaw was looking at the wreckage of his business. "Our farm and all those around us were dead," said Falshaw, "and there was Labour celebrating and claiming to have beaten the epidemic. "What happened to me and thousands of other farmers was not some unpredictable accident - it was a disaster which the government should have foreseen and avoided." As of last week, the government still did not have a new contingency plan to deal with outbreaks of FMD. It appears to be waiting for action by the EU, which is drawing up a directive on the matter. Meanwhile the PanAsian type O virus is still out there.
Additional reporting: John Elliott