Whatever you call it, stupidity is the same

MAGNUS LINKLATER ~ The Times June 15th 2001

Blair must listen to voices silenced by MAFF in the foot-and-mouth scandal

All change in history, all advance, comes from nonconformity, wrote the historian A.J.P. Taylor. "If there had been no troublemakers, no dissenters, we should still be living in caves."

It would be nice to think that Tony Blair had stuck that saying on the wall of his office, or at least reminded his new Cabinet of its fundamental importance. A second term, backed by an overriding majority, gives him the moral authority not just to take unpopular decisions, but to listen to voices which question the narrow orthodoxies of government and extend its intellectual reach. Nowhere is that more true than in the handling of foot-and-mouth. This is a disease whose diagnosis has been flawed from the beginning, whose progress has been wrongly predicted, and which has been tackled by methods that are challenged by a growing body of scientific opinion.

Yet their argument has not been heeded. Experts of real distinction have been sidelined, their requests for data rejected, their input ignored. In direct contradiction to the recommendations of the Phillips inquiry into BSE, which said that dissenting scientists should always be listened to, they have become untouchables.

This week some of them met in London to go over the evidence again and to press for a public inquiry. People such as Dr Paul Sutmoller, who has helped to eradicate the disease in Latin America and the Caribbean, and probably knows more about it at first hand than anyone in the world. Or Dr Ruth Watkins, virologist and sheep breeder, who has pressed the case for vaccination with intelligence and passion. Or Simon Barteling, from The Netherlands, who could explain how the Dutch outbreak has been eliminated. They are not listened to by MAFF (now the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) because they challenge its methods and criticise its science. But Mr Blair could change all that. He could end the cult of secrecy, the lack of openness that has shrouded the disease and alienated farmers up and down the country.

Already there are dark rumours that the outbreak in Settle, in North Yorkshire, is far worse than had been feared, and that infection levels may be as high as 80 per cent. If that is true, then thousands of dairy cattle in the Ribble Valley may be at risk. At the same time, another rumour has it that the department is about to launch a further round of killings, taking out animals that have had the disease but recovered. If antibodies are found, then sheep that are harbouring them will be slaughtered, adding to the misery of those who have already lost healthy flocks in the course of the infamous three-kilometre "contiguous" cull.

An open debate about these developments would throw up two ideas. First, that the only sure and certain way of controlling the Settle outbreak is by vaccination. The Government's emergency committee, known as Cobra, this week heard, and rejected, a proposal from Gareth Davies, the former veterinary epidemiologist at the European Commission, that vaccination should be used. The usual arguments prevailed - that the farmers did not want it, there were no staff to administer the vaccines and, more shockingly, that there were no vaccines available because the batch had expired. These excuses are not only threadbare, they are scandalous. As Mr Davies told The Times: "I asked what would happen if we didn't vaccinate and what were the chances of this cluster blowing up really big. There was a deathly silence."

Silence also surrounds the issue of sheep found to be carrying antibodies.

So intent is the department on demonstrating to Europe that the British flock will eventually be FMD-free that those animals found to have had the disease and recovered will also be slaughtered. The latest research from virologists, however, suggests that the risk of infection from these animals is negligible. Whether they are right or not cannot be determined, since they are not being allowed access to the virus - the department's scientists say that it is too infectious. This is absurd, since some of the laboratories concerned are used to dealing with highly infectious organisms such as HIV and Hepatitis B.

The department, however, is claiming a monopoly on expertise and thus on policy. This might be acceptable if that policy was clearly seen to be working, or if that expertise was unimpeachable. Neither is true. The epidemic seems set to last for the rest of this year, while there is a growing feeling that the data on which the policy has been based is inaccurate.

Dr Paul Kitching, of the Government's Pirbright laboratory, who has now left to go to Canada, has stated in no uncertain terms that the epidemiological models supplied to him were flawed.

Perhaps the most serious charge is this: that in tackling the outbreak, a very simple and crude approach has been adopted, in which science has come second to expediency. Killing all animals, infected or not, is like using the trench strategy of the First World War. It may finally eliminate the disease, but the cost will be astronomical. Meanwhile, scientific research, the need to carry out advanced tests to assess how and why this particular strain of virus is spreading, to learn more about it and thus to combat it more effectively, has been relegated. That is why Mr Blair should consult not just his resident team of scientists but those who have been left outside - the real experts, the virologists and the epidemiologists who understand this disease, who know what has to be done, and whose skills and experience would help to bring the nightmare finally to an end.

magnus.linklater@virgin.net