Silence of the damned

Sunday Telegraph

In his report last week Dr Iain Anderson blamed the foot-and-mouth disaster on inadequate contingency planning. But, ask Christopher Booker and Richard North, what about the cover-up between Brussels and Whitehall?

Last week's report by Dr Iain Anderson into the handling of the foot-and-mouth disaster was, from the Government's point of view, a very clever document. It seemed just critical enough - in implying that the Government did not have the legal powers to kill millions of healthy animals under its "pre-emptive cull" - to justify ministers' claims that it was not a "whitewash".

Yet so blandly does the report manage to tiptoe round all the evidence that has been emerging in recent months as to the real story behind last year's crisis that no one reading it could guess what a colossal failure of Government it represented; for which the UK Government and the European Commission were equally to blame.

The essence of Dr Anderson's findings was that contingency planning was inadequate and that the key strategy in countering any future epidemic must be emergency vaccination; which seemed outspoken enough to lull commentators into thinking that Dr Anderson had taken a fearlessly "independent" look at the evidence.

Yet what that evidence should have shown him is that, if the system had worked as intended, Britain should already have been equipped and obliged by law to carry out a full-scale emergency vaccination programme within days of the first outbreak being identified.

The country could have been spared the worst of a disaster that cost the economy at least £3.8 billion; the lives of those millions of illegally killed animals could have been saved; and rural communities would have been spared their most traumatic experience in modern times.

It is now clear that this tragedy was made inevitable by a complete breakdown of the system devised by the European Commission in the 1990s for tackling any future outbreaks of foot and mouth. Successive British governments failed to meet even the inadequate Brussels requirements for drawing up proper contingency plans.

The Commission failed in its duty to check that Britain was complying with those requirements, even when in 1999 it gave a warning that the risk of an epidemic was "extraordinarily high".

The result was that, in 2001, Britain was wholly unprepared for what happened. Yet because Brussels and Whitehall were both at fault, they agreed to hush up just how seriously their joint system had failed.

Particularly striking all through Dr Anderson's report is the coy way it downplays the consequences of the fact that in the 1980s overall competence for foot-and-mouth policy was taken over by Brussels. A new Community strategy on foot and mouth was set out by directive 85/511, amended in 1990 by a second directive, 90/423, laying down new rules for use of vaccination.

Until that time, Continental countries had used vaccination with great success to eradicate a near-endemic disease. In 1952, Europe-wide, there had been 100,000 cases. By 1989, thanks to vaccination, there was none. But, to meet international trade rules, it was then proposed that vaccination on a routine basis should be outlawed.

The one exception was when an outbreak of foot and mouth threatened to become an epidemic, in which case emergency vaccination should replace slaughter. And in 1991, under the directive, member states were told to draft contingency plans to tackle any reappearance of the disease.

In tackling epidemics, just as in meeting any civil disaster, adequate contingency plans are a core function of government. By the time an epidemic breaks out, or an airliner crashes, it is too late to work out from scratch how to respond. What is vital is that there is a plan to be pulled off the shelf laying down exactly what must be done, and that all necessary measures should already be in place for it to roll into operation.

This was where the sequence of blunders began which would eventually lead to the catastrophe last year in Britain. The first error was that the Commission's guidelines on how to draw up a contingency plan were woefully inadequate.

They did not envisage any epidemic larger than 150 cases. In 1992, all member states submitted plans, including that presented by Britain's then agriculture minister, John Gummer. In 1993, a second error; the Commission approved the plans en bloc, but did not embark on a detailed assessment of them for another six years.

In 1998, two years after Brussels had used emergency vaccination to halt an epidemic of the virulent new Pan-Asian O-strain of foot and mouth in the Balkans, the Commission issued new guidelines warning member states that additional measures must be taken "to prevent a local outbreak becoming a disaster".

The same year an internal committee of the State Veterinary Service in Britain - halved in numbers by cuts in the 1980s - reported that foot-and-mouth contingency plans were hopelessly inadequate and that the SVS had neither the manpower nor the resources to cope with an epidemic.

In 1999, as fears of the spread of Pan-Asian O-strain multiplied, Brussels issued yet more+ guidelines, warning that the risks of a "very large outbreak" in the European Union were "extraordinarily high", and laying down 10 criteria to guide member states on when to use emergency vaccination. Yet even Dr Anderson admits, "We found no evidence that the UK took heed of the 1999 European report guidelines in altering strategic policy. Contingency planning for vaccination was minimal."

When Pan-Asian O spread across half Britain in February 2001, it was apparent within days that at least seven of the Commission's 10 criteria requiring vaccination had been met. But the Ministry of Agriculture had no way of carrying out its obligations under EU law. It was forced to fall back on the traditional 19th-century method of fighting foot and mouth by launching an orgy of slaughter, because it had made no other preparations.

In Brussels, the Commission was just as much caught out as Whitehall. It had failed in its duty to assess the adequacy of member states' contingency plans. It had failed to update its legal requirements in line with its own warnings as to the likelihood of an epidemic. Publicly, therefore, it gave full support to the British Government as it stumbled through the crisis.

When officials from the EU's Food and Veterinary Office came over to see what was happening, it was they who instructed on March 16 that the mass-slaughter policy should be extended to a "pre-emptive cull", under which millions of healthy animals were to be killed on farms surrounding those infected, in a desperate, pre-scientific attempt to achieve the results which could have been reached so much more painlessly by vaccination.

The giveaway to the Commission's embarrassment was a speech made to EU farm ministers in Sweden on April 10, 2001, by David Byrne, the Brussels commissioner in charge of EU foot-and-mouth policy, when he said that, although there could be "no change in policy" until the "present crisis" was over, emergency vaccination in future would have to play a central role in the EU's strategy for tackling the disease.

What he carefully omitted was that vaccination already played that central role in EU strategy, and that it was only thanks to the combined failures of the UK Government and Mr Byrne's own Commission that it had not been possible to use it in 2001. During that same month of April when Uruguay had an outbreak of foot and mouth which threatened to become as serious as that engulfing Britain, the country's government immediately authorised its farmers to carry out emergency vaccination of 11 million cattle. By August, the disease had been eradicated without mass slaughter, burning pyres or any of the horrors familiar in Britain. By November, Uruguay had regained its full international exporting status at a fraction of the expense imposed on the UK, and without any of the attendant agonies.

When the agriculture minister, Margaret Beckett, last week petulantly waved aside criticism of her Government's record as no more than "hindsight", she got it 180 degrees wrong. What made this disaster so horrifying was the lack of foresight: that contingency planning which is a core duty of good government.

From Mr Blair's point of view, the advantage of the two recent official reports arising from last year's catastrophe - that of Dr Anderson and the Royal Society report by Sir Brian Follett - is that both manage to propose that vaccination should play a central role in any future foot-and-mouth epidemic without admitting that, if the system had worked as intended, that is precisely what should have happened in 2001.

It has been a clever way to get both Mr Blair and Brussels off the hook - whether it serves the interests of truth and morality is another matter altogether.

July 28 02