A disgrace that still stains our countrysidemagnus linklater Foot"and"mouth reports demonstrate the Government's folly and inhumanity
With restraint, courtesy and admirable clarity, the Royal Society in London, and its counterpart the Royal Society of Edinburgh, have eviscerated the Government's handling of the foot"and"mouth epidemic. Their reports, issued this week, expose not only the awful catalogue of mistakes which cost many billions of pounds and brought the British tourist industry to its knees last summer, but reveal, between their well"modulated lines, the deviancy and deception which steered the country away from a civilised programme of vaccination towards the brutal policy of mass slaughter.
It now emerges that almost everything we were told, by government scientists, by ministers and by farmers' unions, about vaccination and its drawbacks, was either misleading or simply untrue. I cannot remember a public issue on which so much disinformation was deliberately published in order to sustain so bankrupt a policy. The vested interests of the farmers' unions and the food industry, coupled with an almost complete absence of political leadership, up to and including the Prime Minister, ensured that we killed almost 11 million animals (including calves and lambs), most of which turned out to be unaffected by the disease, in order to protect an export trade worth less than £500 million. All along, we were assured that there was no alternative.
We were told, almost from the start, that vaccination would not work because research was not sufficiently advanced; that it would simply mask the infection and create "carrier" animals; it would end our disease"free status and ruin our export trade; there were insufficient supplies of vaccine available; we could not vaccinate fast enough to control the spread of the epidemic; consumers would refuse to buy vaccinated meat.
The voices raised against vaccination were powerful and insistent. Jim Scudamore, the chief vet, said animals would continue to harbour the disease; Professor David King, the chief scientist, maintained that "since animals can still carry the disease and harbour it for some considerable time, vaccination would be ineffective". Professor Roy Anderson, of Imperial College, the principal proponent of the slaughter policy, said that because there was no test to distinguish between infected and vaccinated animals, the disease would spread by stealth. Union leaders north and south of the border, echoed this view. Ben Gill, of the NFU, argued constantly that there was no other option, and described vaccinated animals as "the walking dead". It would be a minimum of 12 months before exports could be resumed, he said. Jim Walker, his counterpart in Scotland, said that giving in to vaccination was "an admission of defeat".
These arguments became official government policy. Elliot Morley, the Defra minister, sent out a round"robin warning all MPs about the risks of vaccination. The virus would be passed on from generation to generation, he said; in any event, the animals would simply have to be killed later. As recently as a fortnight ago, he was still pursuing this line.
And yet both of this week's reports recommend emergency vaccination next time round. What is more, they support a policy of "vaccination to live", rather than as a precursor to slaughter. The RSE report points out that there is no evidence of vaccinated animals passing on the disease. "Indeed, there is some evidence that substantially fewer carrier animals are found amongst vaccinated animals that have been exposed to infection."
Post"vaccination screening will reduce any risk of lingering infection and remove the carrier problem. There are ample stocks of vaccine in Europe and at the Vaccine Bank at Pirbright in Surrey. There would be no risk to consumers since the vaccine is incapable of passing on disease. We already eat vaccinated meat from South America and before 1991 we purchased it in large quantities from the EU without any harmful effect. There are serological tests to discriminate between vaccinated and naturally infected animals. The availability of such tests is a further argument for emergency vaccination. The arguments go on and on.
As to the logistical problems, I was struck by one simple paragraph from the RSE report. Last year, in the middle of our own epidemic, Uruguay, which had been free of the disease since 1996, experienced a major outbreak among its cattle. The entire national herd of 10.5 million cattle was vaccinated in one month. The disease was controlled and the last case occurred on August 21. Fewer than 10,000 animals were killed. Imports to the EU were resumed on November 1, just two months later.
Europe, it seems, has begun to relax its restrictions, and the 12"months waiting period after vaccination has already been reduced to six months. All this, and more, is cogently argued in these two excellent reports. Because they emerge from independent scientific bodies whose only interest is in finding out the truth, they are free of the verbiage and cant which has clouded the issue for so long.
There is, however, nothing new or remarkable about their case. It is one that has been put forward patiently and repeatedly by distinguished international vets such as Professor Fred Brown, from the US, and Dr Simon Barteling, from The Netherlands - experts who have actually worked in countries where foot"and"mouth is prevalent. Both claim that the disease could have been contained in weeks rather than months. Both were routinely ignored.
Now they have been vindicated. Recently, Professor Brown, a wise and imperturbable character, commented, in the course of evidence to the European inquiry on foot"and"mouth, that Britain's handling of the disease was "a disgrace to humanity". I find it hard to disagree.