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How the foot and mouth disaster of 2001 began
By Christopher Booker and Richard North
GIVEN that the Great Foot and Mouth Disaster of 2001 is one of the worst social and financial catastrophes to befall peacetime Britain, it is hardly surprising that, for months, there has been rising clamour for a full independent inquiry into every aspect of how the Government has handled it.
Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, the methods now chosen by Tony Blair to allay that clamour have aroused as much suspicion as his earlier refusal to promise one.
Ultimately, the only question that mattered was whether such an inquiry would be genuinely free to investigate the bewildering array of political, scientific and legal questions thrown up by the Government's response to this crisis since it began last February. On the basis of what Mr Blair has now come up with, it seems the answer to that is likely to be "No".
For a start, he has cleverly chosen to split the main government inquiry into three quite separate parts, the remit for which seems carefully designed to allow many of the most fundamental questions to slip unanswered down the cracks between them. Furthermore none of these is to be an open, public inquiry. The hearings will be in secret, carried out behind closed doors.
Equally revealing is the background of the three men who he has picked to chair each of his investigations. Attention has focused on his choice of Sir Donald Curry to lead the inquiry into the future of British farming because, as a former chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission, representing the large companies at the top of the meat industry, Sir Donald might seem rather too obviously to represent just one powerful producer interest group.
But Mr Blair's other choices are, in fact, even more revealing. The brief handed to the Royal Society, under the chairmanship of Sir Brian Follett, is suspiciously general: to look into the future handling of animal diseases across the board. This avoids any particular focus on the highly controversial scientific aspects of how this particular epidemic has been tackled.
Fellowship of the Royal Society (FRS) links several of the scientists who have played a central role in the story of the past few months. Its president is Sir Robert May, the former government chief scientist, who played a key part in recommending another fellow of the society, Professor David King, a chemist, to succeed him as chief scientist and Mr Blair's top foot and mouth adviser.
Another FRS is Sir Robert's former Oxford colleague, Sir John Krebs, of the Food Standards Agency, who played a key part in having Prof Roy Anderson FRS put in charge of the Government's policy for controlling the epidemic. And Prof Anderson has co-authored several books with Sir Robert May. All of which hardly inspires confidence that an investigation carried out by the Royal Society could be totally objective.
The third inquiry, into potentially the most embarrassing issue of all, the Government's political handling of the crisis, has been given to Dr Iain Anderson, who was formerly a special adviser to Mr Blair at Number 10.
Before the 1997 election, he worked for the Labour Party as chairman of an inquiry into information technology in schools, which played a key part in New Labour's bid to build itself a new, "modernising" image.
The decision to hold separate inquiries into the scientific issues raised by the crisis and its political management might seem particularly perverse, since the two are interwoven to such an extent that, as in the great debate over vaccination, they cannot responsibly be separated. But, by splitting the two, many of the more awkward questions can conveniently be sidestepped.
If there are particular questions about the crisis of the past six months that, above all, demand full and honest answers, they are as follows:
1) How did the foot and mouth outbreak start? Can we expect a full investigation of all the circumstantial evidence for it not having originated from imported meat fed to pigs at Bobby Waugh's farm at Heddon on the Wall, where it was first officially identified on February 23, but might already have been unidentified in the sheep flock weeks - possibly months - earlier?
2) Why did the Government apparently ignore so many of the recommendations of the 1969 Northumberland report into Britain's last major foot and mouth outbreak (for example, that infected animals should be killed and buried on the spot, on the same day)? Will it be explained that the real answer to this is that the legal framework for handling a foot and mouth epidemic had been completely changed since "competence" on this disease was handed to Brussels in the 1980s; and that the reason for all the delays in slaughter and burial, and the transporting of infected carcasses across country to burial pyres, lay in the European Commission's foot and mouth directive 85/511, and the groundwater directive prohibiting on-the-spot burial in quicklime.
3) Why were we never told about the United Kingdom contingency plan for foot and mouth, submitted to the European Commission by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1993; and why has this never been published?
4) Why did Maff scrap Epiman, a data management and prediction system drawn up by New Zealand scientists for controlling a major foot and mouth epidemic?
5) Why, in March, did Mr Blair hand over control of the epidemic to the computer team led by Professor Roy Anderson of Imperial College, an epidemiologist who has no veterinary expertise?
6) Why, on Prof Anderson's advice, did the Government introduce its "contiguous cull" policy, under which millions of uninfected animals have been destroyed? Was it, in fact, even legal under EU and British law to kill healthy animals in this way?
7) Why, when the epidemic met all the criteria for an emergency vaccination programme laid out in EC directive 90/423, did the Government not adopt such a programme, flatly ignoring the advice of an array of international experts, including Dr Simon Barteling, the leading Dutch vet who played a central part in framing that EC policy?
8) Why, when the Government eventually received permission from Brussels to carry out a limited vaccination programme to protect cattle in Cumbria and Devon, did it in effect allow the National Farmers' Union to veto this?
9) Why were farmers so consistently misinformed over both the science and the law on vaccination? Why were they falsely allowed to believe that vaccinated animals would have to be slaughtered? Or, alternatively, that they would lose financially if their animals were vaccinated, when there is specific EU provision to compensate them for such losses?
10) Why, in April, did the Government so significantly change its policy on the criteria for classifying outbreaks to coincide with pre-election claims that the epidemic was under control? Why did this coincide with figures from Prof Anderson's computer, which conveniently showed that the number of outbreaks would hit zero on June 7, Mr Blair's chosen election date?
11) Why was no official action taken to prevent the wholesale breaches of animal welfare and "biosecurity" rules by government vets and employees?
12) Why, as the crisis developed, was there such a conspicuous breakdown of trust between farmers and government vets and officials? Why were there so many public or off-the-record briefings by ministers and civil servants blaming farmers? Why were such ruthless methods used to suppress growing opposition to government policy from the veterinary profession?
These questions alone - and many others have arisen from the Government's peculiar response to this crisis - may help to explain why, in the eyes of many observers, this tragic story has added up to one of the greatest single acts of maladministration for which any British government has been responsible.
It has been a crisis, still far from over, that has inflicted a devastating blow on a considerable chunk of Britain's farming industry and large areas of our countryside, the legacy of which will be evident for decades to come. It will drive thousands of small livestock farmers permanently out of business (it has already led to an estimated 60 suicides); and has left a trail of havoc through the rural economy, as tens of thousands of businesses still face possible bankruptcy.
The knock-on effects of this disaster have already done significant damage to Britain's wider economy, estimated by the Institute of Directors at £20 billion, and lost growth and tax revenue could undermine Gordon Brown's spending plans just as surely as any recession.
The one thing that Mr Blair could not have afforded was a genuinely independent and open inquiry into this awful shambles, with public hearings, published evidence and unrestricted access to government papers. By only too familiar Blairite methods, he has now arranged that he will be spared any such embarrassment by the three tightly restricted and secretive investigations he has set up.
But the questions continue to bubble up from this poisonous and horrifying story. And one day, despite the Prime Minister's efforts, most of them are likely to be given answers that are very much less to his liking or comfort.
10 August 2001: Inquiry 1: Search for lessons from foot and mouth 10 August 2001: Inquiry 3: Study will concentrate on threat of epidemics