Foot and Mouth inquiry week two...process was a 'farce'

DEFRA’S handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis was roundly condemned as a “complete farce” at a public meeting in Ulverston as Cumbria’s foot-and-mouth inquiry took to the road this week. Furness farmers lined up to tell their horror stories at the Coronation Hall, hearing accusations of the Government of being out-of-touch with the industry. “The people at DEFRA don’t understand farming, I don’t think they know what people are doing up here,” said Blawith farmer Ross Baxter. Chief among the criticisms levelled at the ministry was disorganisation and a failure of communication that led to numerous distressing and costly blunders. “A week to the day after the cull DEFRA rang to say ‘we are coming to cull your animals’,” reported Maureen Boyren in common with other farmers at the hearing. “That is the kind of thing that could tip someone.” In another example a family received a letter after the cull which stated: ‘Owing to foot-and-mouth on your farm all your stock have been culled’. “Did they think we had gone to bed and hadn’t noticed? Someone at DEFRA thought that was a reasonable letter to send!” Charlotte Thexton, of Sayles Farm at Lowick, said DEFRA “would be better named as MI5” for its “non-existent” communication. “If you were a farmer nobody but nobody would talk to you at Carlisle.” Mr Baxter further believed that some contractors tried to cash in on the administrative chaos claiming to check things just to earn money.

Vets and farmers said that in any future outbreak, DEFRA should employ regional representatives as a single point of contact for each area, liaise with local experts and stop co-ordinating operations from Whitehall. “The local people who knew the area were not allowed to influence the policy, which was wrong,” said Broughton vet Rick Brown, who ran DEFRA’s operations at Broughton. Failure to consult local expertise was blamed for a decision to enforce the boundaries of the Furness infected area which the NFU’s Cartmel and Ulverston group secretary, Tom Hodgson, said did not make sense.

Farmers said the boundaries had caused severe hardship. “Because we couldn’t bring sheep back home, we lambed all the sheep up on the tops where it was snowing. Under normal conditions you would have been prosecuted by the RSPCA for the state these animals were in,” George Case told the inquiry. Mr Hodgson said farmers were still suffering as a result of the 20-day standstill rule and pressed DEFRA to ease the restriction which, he said, was crippling businesses.
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Vets: Politics drove the agenda
POLITICAL expediency rather than diseases control issues seemed to be guiding Government policy on foot-and-mouth, according to John Cook of the Lakeland Veterinary Association.

Mr Cook, who was seconded to the ministry of agriculture as a Temporary Veterinary Inspector during the crisis, told the inquiry there were “wide discrepancies” between what was happening on the ground in the county and what Ministry HQ in Page Street, London, thought was happening. He set out a catalogue of criticisms of the way the crisis was handled, including: a failure to learn the lessons from the 1967 outbreak, the shunning of local expertise while ill-informed authorities took decisions centrally and for political reasons, flawed epidemiological modelling based on poor quality data and slavish attention to bureaucratic detail within DEFRA. Had the management of the crisis been left up to vets, said Mr Cook, far fewer animals would have died because vets would not have slaughtered on suspicion, taken out dangerous contacts or introduced the controversial 3km cull.

As it was, said Mr Cook, vets had to refer everything to Whitehall and were kept waiting for information so ministers could time their announcement’s in the House of Commons. There was also unclear and contradictory advice on biosecurity, said Mr Cook, who described the Government’s own instructional video on the subject as “flawed”. Farmers on infected farms were confined there but vets and other workers were allowed to come and go.

Indeed Mr Cook said the Government had misunderstood the whole concept and he stressed that biosecurity had to start at ports and other entry points into the UK: “At the end of the day the virus was imported from somewhere,” he said. Again there was conflicting information about vaccination against the virus and no real informed debate about the subject. He also called for more research into vaccines and into quick diagnosis of the disease. Mr Cook said that, contrary to much of what had been said about the disease being innocuous - akin to a cold of flu in humans - the full blown infection in sheep could be very distressing and justify euthanasia. In cattle, he had never seen any animal as poorly as a beast with foot-and-mouth. Had things been handled better at the start, he said, the crisis may never have reached the scale it did.
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Health Chief: Fear still present

FLASHBACKS to the horrors of foot-and-mouth are common among the people who faced the crisis head-on, according to evidence given to the inquiry by Dr Peter Tiplady, director of public health for North Cumbria. Dr Tiplady said “flashbacks and tears” were common not only to farming families but also to soldiers and other professionals involved in the fight against the disease last year. “People are still dealing very much with the outbreak and the effects are long-lasting. Some of those people without doubt need help.” But, in spite of the obvious human health issues raised by smoke from pyres and the psychological distress caused by the horrors of the killing, Dr Tiplady said DEFRA was slow and even reluctant to involve local health agencies.

In a tale which has become familiar to the inquiry, Dr Tiplady said local health authorities recognised right away that there would be human health issues, but the ministry disregarded their concerns totally in the early days and failed to consult local health authorities until late in the crisis. DEFRA, he said, seemed to be taking its health advice direct from Whitehall.

He also said there was a lack of clear information and advice from anywhere in Government: “There was no official guidance as far as I could gather,” said Dr Tiplady When DEFRA finally began consulting the health authority on the siting of funeral pyres, they had to make quick decisions under enormous pressure and based on limited information – sometimes just a grid reference faxed to them by DEFRA.

With the ministry at one point facing a shortfall in disposal capacity for 4,500 animals a day, they were working under “enormous pressure”. “We usually had two of three hours to make a decision – there was no time to visit sites,” he said.

The health authority rejected around half of the proposed pyre sites, but Dr Tiplady said that it was likely that, before they became involved, DEFRA had gone ahead with burning on sites which the health authority would have opposed.

On April 18, partly driven by concerns over health and partly by public perception, it asked the ministry to suspend burning and no more pyres were built - the “definitive” Department of Health guidance did not arrive until the burning had stopped.

He said there had been an increase in prescriptions issued for asthma, but warned that the real effects on human health would be subtle, long-lived and hard to detect. Dr Tiplady did say that once the ministry accepted the involvement of local health officials, things worked well but urged that any future outbreak of foot-and-mouth or something similar must be treated as a human as well as an animal health issue and that local health authorities should be involved from the start.
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Stories from the farm

Gary Strong, of Midtown Farm, Great Strickland, Penrith, said by the time his 246 cattle and 750 sheep were eventually moved to the funeral pyre unborn lambs were dropping out of sheep and the stench coming from the carcasses was “unbearable”

The farm is in the middle of the village, and Mr Strong told the inquiry: “People should not have to put up with the scenes, the smells, the smoke, the funeral pyres and dead carcasses that the village suffered. “Children going to school had to pass fields of dead stock every day.”

Mr Strong, who is a county councillor for Penrith Rural, said in any future outbreak the number of farm to farm movements should be cut down, particularly by vets. He told the inquiry that although his family was not able to leave the farm, teams of contractors were able to come and go every day so long as they changed their boots.

Geoffrey Dixon, of Borwicks Aynsome Farm in Cartmel, said many farmers he knew were afraid to talk about their experiences because they had been “threatened”.

He said that there were many rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding the outbreak and, while many of them were just myths, a “great deal” were true. But he said that many farmers feared that they would lose grants and other support if they spoke out.

He said: “I have neighbours who’ve been threatened in various ways but they dare not speak for fear of the consequences.”

He told the nine-person inquiry panel about two items he had found while touring his farm to check for signs of the disease. He suspected the items may have been deliberate attempts to infect his farm.
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Invitation to ministers... INQUIRY chairman Professor Phil Thomas has written to Margaret Beckett, secretary of State at DEFRA, inviting her or her ministers and officials to give evidence to the inquiry. The ministry is expected to decline to send any representative in person as it did with the Devon and Northumberland inquiries. Professor Thomas submitted with his invitation a list of 28 detailed questions for Mrs Beckett and her ministry. The letter was sent on May 8, but as the Gazette went to press last night (Thursday), the minister had not acknowledged its receipt. The Gazette will report the ministry’s response as and when Mrs Beckett or her colleagues reply.