Daily Mail editorial 19 January 2002

A sorry tale of twisted values

THIS has been a week of glaring contrasts, in two very different areas of national concern. Foot-and-mouth disease and the Bloody Sunday inquiry may seem to have nothing in common, but between them they convey a deeply depressing message about the quality of public administration in Britain today.

Consider, first, the announcement that the foot-and-mouth epidemic is at last officially over, eleven catastrophic months after the first case was confirmed.

Even now, it is difficult to grasp the scale of the tragedy. This was the worst outbreak the world has ever seen. Six million animals have been, slaughtered, though the majority were not infected. The financial cost could reach +5billion. The human cost is incalculable.

And what makes the misery worse is the corrosive - and continuing - suspicion that from day one, the Government was hopelessly out of its depth.

For crucial weeks at the beginning, this crisis was left to junior Ministers, while Cabinet heavyweights worked on election planning. Nobody grasped the seriousness of the outbreak. There was confusion over whether carcasses should be buried or burned. And more confusion over whether vaccinating animals was a better solution than culling.

In other European countries suffering foot-and-mouth, such as Holland, the disease was brought under control in a matter of weeks through vaccination.

Not in Britain. Again and again, Whitehall and the National Farmers' Union insisted that slaughter was the only answer. So the sky grew black with funeral pyres. Rural communities sank deeper into despair. Tourism was wrecked. And the epidemic raged on.

The case for a full public inquiry is unanswerable. The questions raised may prove embarrassing for the Government. But unless they are addressed honestly and openly, Britain could find itself repeating old mistakes, if (Heaven forfend) foot-and-mouth strikes again.

The only responsible and honourable course is to ensure lessons are learned.

But in the New Labour dispensation, other considerations apply. 'The Ministers who rushed to set up a public inquiry into mad cow disease - which they knew would embarrass the Tories - have suddenly discovered all kinds of reasons for avoiding one now.

Apparently, such inquiries are expensive and unnecessary, since the Goverm-nent has already set Up three internal investigations at which - surprise, surprise - evidence is being taken in private.

Such brazen dishonesty is breathtaking. The only reason Ministers are ducking a proper inquiry is because they fear - with good reason - that their own incompetence would be laid bare. And they are, so contemptuous of the public that they can't even be bothered to come up with a half-plausible excuse.

For aren't those who balk at a relatively cheap inquiry into foot-and-mouth the very people responsible for the bloated disgrace of the Bloody Sunday tribunal, which has proved such an obscene bonanza for highly-paid lawyers?

There was never any serious expectation that the Saville inquiry would establish the truth. After 30 years, that is almost an impossibility, despite the emergence of evidence that the IRA was shooting on that awful day. Instead, Ministers set up this £200 Million tribunal to appease terrorists.

The Government continues to insist that the money is well spent. But lawabiding country dwellers who have suffered so much? They can whistle for a public inquiry. New Labour has other priorities. Bloody Sunday and foot-andmouth cast a harsh light indeed on the twisted values of our governing class.