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July 24 2001

The farce just goes on and on

As the foot-and-mouth clean-up is halted, another epidemic could be around the corner. So will there be a public inquiry? Not likely.

By Richard North

COULD there be any more spectacular demonstration of the catastrophic mismanagement of the foot-and-mouth crisis than Tony Blair's decision to stop contrac-tors disinfecting farms after they've been hit by the disease? Mr Blair has decided that, at £100,000 a farm or £2 million a day, the clean-up, which every contaminated farm must undergo before it can bear live-stock again, is too expensive. This is ten times more than it cost in Holland and France.

Let us leave aside for a moment the extraordinary fact that the Government has taken six months since the first outbreak to work out how much it costs to cleanup farms bit by the disease. The real scandal is that this foolhardy decision comes just as the RSPCA is warning in chilling language that the Gov-ernment's mismanagement, cost-cutting and evasion will result in the disease returning to epidemic levels this autumn. Christopher Laurence, head of the RSPCA's foot-and-mouth strategy group, says that some of the nine million ewes roaming freely on British hillsides are almost certainly now infected. When they are brought to low-land pastures in the autumn, they will inevitably mingle with other sheep and start the whole infection process again.

Crisis

What will happen then? Will we slaughter everything in sight as before, burn and bury carcasses until the sky turns black again and the soil bubbles blood? Will Tony Blair renounce his pre-election declaration that we 'are on the home straight' as far as the disease is concerned? Will he accept that vaccination might help to keep it at bay - as did Holland, which successfully controlled the disease? For no other outbreak approaching this scale has ever been controlled without vaccination.

Certainly no one in farming or Government is now prepared to bet that the disease will be over by Christmas. In fact, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has extended vets' contracts until next May, and is offering slaughtermen full-time contracts until the end of the year. In parts of Britain currently unaffected by the disease, farm-ers believe it is only a matter of time before they are hit. Crisis meetings are being held up and down the country in mar-ket towns such as Welshpool, where I recently addressed 150 desperate farmers. And, if there is one question which continually comes up, it is: why does Tony Blair seem so frightened of having a full public inquiry on foot-and-mouth?

After all, for months before they came to power in May 1997, Labour campaigned zealously for a public inquiry into the BSE scandal, which was instituted as soon as Mr Blair was elected. How different now is Labour's approach. The Government has all but brushed the question of a public inquiry aside, even though it is the only kind of inquest capable of revealing the devastating truth about this sorry affair.

The difference between this crisis and BSE is that Labour now carries the can and knows full well that any public inquiry would find it guilty of gross neglect and maladministration. Suddenly, the party seems to have lost its ardour for public accountability.

Consider this: in purely economic terms, the projected £20 billion loss to the economy caused by this disease translates into something like an #8 billion loss in taxes to the Inland Revenue - money which could have been spent on better hospitals, more policemen and more teachers. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Any inquiry would seriously question a policy that has resulted in the deaths of an estimated six million animals, most of which were healthy. For months now, It has been claimed that up to two million healthy animals were needlessly slaughtered, specifically against the advice of the country's leading foot-and-mouth experts.

Rumours

There are other serious questions which must be answered. Crucially it is now known that, a few months before the official start of the epidemic, trials of a new foot-and-mouth vaccine were being carried out in this country. This involved injecting live pigs with vaccine and then artificially infecting them with the foot-and-mouth virus. So somewhere in Britain before it became public knowledge, pigs were incubating this disease. Given that, shortly afterwards, foot-and-mouth broke out in earnest, the question is: did the vaccine trial go wrong?

And is this the real reason why the then Ministry of Agriculture was so opposed to vaccination? Either way, we need to know whether the epidemic really did start in mid-February at Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland, as the Government maintains. There are unconfirmed, but persistent rumours that MAFF knew, or suspected, that foot-and-mouth was already in the country as early as September - not least because of its inquiries in December and January about the availability of railway sleepers for pyres.

The new information about the vaccine trials adds fuel to the rumour mill. It would also tend to explain the extraordinary debacle over vaccination. First, it was on the agenda, then it was off, and then it was back on again until, on April 23, Nick Brown declared to incredulous MPs at the Commons Agriculture Select Committee that, because the number of outbreaks was declining, vaccination would not be necessary.

Surplus

But was that the real reason? There have been suggestions that the policy of culling so many animals fits in with Brussels' known desire to reduce permanently the number of livestock In Britain because there is such a surplus of animal products.

A public inquiry would at least help to explain why, against all scientific advice, Labour chose to extend the so-called 'contiguous cull' areas from two to three kilometres, so pulling in several million more animals for slaughter than even the most hardened zealots believed necessary And what about the Government's choice of 'frontman' to head up its scientific team, Professor David King, a career chemist who lists his speciality as 'surface materials'.

How is it that the Government chose to rely on a scientist, seemingly unqualified for the role, to manage the biggest foot-and-mouth epidemic ever known? What was his true role? And therein lies one of the most fundamental questions. After Tony Blair had already postponed the General Election from May 3, it was an open secret that the next available date was June 7.

How convenient that, just as the epidemic seemed to be running out of control, the figures declined to the extent that Professor King was, on April 23, able to predict confidently that the epidemic would come skidding to a halt on - guess what - June 7. If the figures were not massaged for political reasons, then the coincidence is something that only a truly independent inquiry will be able to explain.

There are just too many serious questions which demand answers for this disaster - which is still far from over - to be brushed under the carpet.

ends