Booker Notebook, 29 July 2001
Mr Blair may have exploded, as was reported last week, when he saw an estimate that the cost of disinfecting foot-and-mouth affected farms had now reached £800 million, averaging £104,000 for each farm. The true cost per farm, I learn from a source in the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is in fact nearer £50,000. But this does not alter the fact that the epidemic's financial cost is now so hopelessly out of control that it is rapidly moving to centre stage, as was confirmed by the news that it is to be investigated by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by the very competent David Davis MP.
What our Defra 'mole' reveals about the costs of foot-and-mouth is actually even more shocking than last week's headlines indicated. For an infected 100-cow dairy farm, compensation and disinfection costs total £140,000. Other costs including transport and disposal of carcasses, the time of staff and contractors and so forth, come to easily another £100,000. And for each farm infected, another 4.7 farms on average have been similarly 'killed out' under the controversial 'contiguous cull' scheme.. So the true cost of each 'infected place' runs at well over £1 million. With the total of infected farms now topping 1900, this confirms earlier reports that the cost to taxpayers has so far been £2.5 billion, equivalent to more than 1p on income tax.
But even this is dwarfed by the additional costs to the national economy, as hundreds of thousands of businesses related to farming or tourism have experienced a devastating drop in income, Scarcely a day goes by without another company or sector ascribing lost turnover to the crisis, from Eurostar to Harvey Nicolls. Sectors seriously hit have ranged from manufacturers of outdoor equipment, reporting£40 million in lost trade, to hot-air ballooning which has all-but come to a halt. If the Institute of Directors is right in projecting an overall loss to the economy this year of £20 billion, this could mean a reduction in Gordon Brown's tax revenues of £5-8 billion, in additions to the billions he is already contributing to Defra's costs. Yet what in retrospect may seem astonishing is how much of this catastrophic blow to the economy might have been avoided.
Last week I again spoke to two of the world's leading experts on foot-and-mouth, Professor Fred Brown, who works for the US Animal Health Institute, and the eminent Dutch vet Dr. Simon Barteling, who back in April both expressed amazement that Britain had not gone for a policy of vaccination. Dr Barteling's views are particularly relevant since he is not only an international authority, who has taken charge of 23 foot-and-mouth outbreaks round the world, but played a key part in co-ordinating the dramatic switch in Brussels policy in 1990 which banned vaccination in the European Community except in emergency circumstances. The reason for this was that up to that point vaccination across Europe had been so successful that 100,000 cases in 1952 had been reduced by 1989 to zero. Billions of animals had been vaccinated, with no problem over their meat or milk going into the human food chain; and it was only to meet the requirements of international trade that Brussels decided to outlaw routine vaccination under directive 90/423.
But the directive made clear, as Dr Barteling emphasises, that in special circumstances vaccination was still essential. It was never thought that vaccination should not be used in the kind of emergency which has arisen in Britain, because where an outbreak gets out of control "it is the only way to stop it". "The culling policy only spreads the disease" as he puts it, "it does more harm than it does good". Even if it been necessary to vaccinate 40 million animals, at £5 a time, this would still have cost only £200 million. So the financial equation is clear. On one hand, a loss to Britain's economy of £20 billion, including lost tax revenue of £5-8 billion, plus a direct cost to the taxpayers which, as the disease runs on into next year, could easily top £3 billion. On the other hand, £200 million for a vaccination strategy which could have halted the disease within weeks and saved untold suffering into the bargain. David Davis's committee could come up with some interesting conclusions.