An article Alan Beat wrote a few months ago that has now been published in the magazine "Country Smallholding"
THE FOOT AND MOUTH REPORTS – part 1
Last year the government set up three different inquiries to examine separate aspects of the foot and mouth disease epidemic. The first of these to be completed was the Curry report into the future of farming, and this was analysed in the June 2002 issue of Country Smallholding. The remaining two inquiries have now both published their reports, and in this issue and the next I take a closer look at their implications for smallholders.
THE “Lessons to be learned” inquiry
This was to be an independent examination into the government’s handling of the FMD epidemic, chaired by Dr Iain Anderson and supported by a small team of Whitehall civil servants. This fact drew immediate public criticism that a secretariat drawn from the heart of government machinery could not be expected to produce a truly independent report. However, Dr Anderson was claimed to be a chairman who would be unbiased in his work.
As a part of its investigations, the inquiry team visited some of the worst affected areas of the country in order to gather evidence at first hand. Rosie and I attended the public meeting in Okehampton, Devon, that was part of this process. Dr Anderson spent half an hour (out of a two hour meeting) justifying his own credentials to a sceptical audience, and partly succeeded in winning confidence. He came across as a man of integrity who would sincerely attempt to uncover the truth. His critics pointed out that much of his evidence would be taken in private, in particular his questioning of government ministers, and would not be published nor open to cross-examination as would be the case in a true public inquiry. He assured his audience that his report would be independent, and that if it contained any shortcomings he would expect the public to inform him in no uncertain terms.
During the remaining hour and a half of the meeting, he was informed by a wide range of speakers from the audience of their personal experience during the FMD crisis. Many of these were harrowing accounts of human and animal suffering under the mass slaughter policies that were imposed. Near the end of this meeting, I outlined the impact that the use of vaccination could have made, and called for a show of hands to ascertain the level of support for vaccination within the hall. It was already clear from the response of the audience that vaccination was preferred to mass slaughter by many of those present. Dr Anderson hesitated but his civil servant secretary, Alun Evans, moved quickly to deny my request and to change the subject. From that moment on, the audience realised that the content of the final report would be a predictable cover-up.
And so it proved. The media dutifully repeated the summary of its many recommendations, but there was never any question of this inquiry revealing the full truth and apportioning blame. Criticisms are made but no-one is held to account. No serious examination of government policy is attempted. Instead, the report tinkers around at the edges of the crisis, failing completely to grasp the central issues.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, the report merits careful study because it will certainly be used to justify aspects of government policy over the months and years ahead. The following section attempts to draw out some of the implications for smallholders.
Anderson points out that between 1922 and 1967, there were only two years in which the UK was completely free of FMD. Four epidemics during this period were so severe that they prompted official government reports in 1922, 1924, 1954 and 1968. He notes a high degree of continuity in the central themes of these reports, showing that identifying lessons is one thing, but taking appropriate action is quite another matter.
The Drummond report (published in February 1999) had drawn attention to inadequate contingency planning against exotic animal diseases, including FMD. In July 2000 Jim Scudamore, the Chief Veterinary Officer, visited the World Reference Laboratory for FMD at Pirbright to be briefed on the deteriorating FMD situation in the Middle and Far East. Predictions had been made that an epidemic of FMD was likely to hit Europe in the next few years. Yet no action was taken and these concerns were not passed on to higher levels of government.
A major epidemic of Classical Swine Fever had affected the Netherlands in 1997, culminating in the slaughter of over nine millions pigs, but Anderson found no evidence that MAFF had actively learned any lessons from the Dutch experience. A much smaller outbreak of this disease in the UK during 2000 of only sixteen cases had stretched the resources of our State Veterinary Service (SVS) to their absolute limit.
Will the lessons finally be learned now? The signs are that there is a determination at ministerial level to avoid yet another such catastrophic failure of preparedness. This implies that a raft of preventative measures will be enforced in the near future to affect all of us, not only farmers and smallholders, but domestic pet owners as well.
THE SLAUGHTER POLICY
Anderson unquestioningly accepts and repeats information from government sources on slaughter policy, without due consideration of alternative scientific opinion or of the data available worldwide. He states in his foreword “My job was not to conduct research into the mass of veterinary and epidemiological data” but unfortunately he does not constrain himself from making numerous recommendations on disease control policy – an extraordinary and potentially dangerous situation, in my view. Already government ministers and scientists are pointing to these recommendations as justification for future policies, when in fact no proper examination of policy as applied during 2001 has been made.
Given these failings, Anderson still identifies some of the anomalies within the official data. He notes that in the first four weeks of the epidemic, less than one in ten infected premises were slaughtered within twenty-four hours – the crucial target for disease control - yet he fails to recognise the significance of this fact. He describes the personal intervention of Sir John Krebs of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in drawing together an informal group of epidemiologists during early March, yet fails to question why he should have become involved at all when FMD has no implication for human health and clearly falls outside the remit of the FSA.
He does observe that the adoption of these same epidemiologists by Professor David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), into his advisory Science Group, broke the government’s specific guidelines on scientific advice and policy making, and also failed to take account of the lessons drawn by The BSE Inquiry. He makes no comment on the fact that it is King’s responsibility as CSA to ensure that these very guidelines are followed across all government departments! He notes that the group was more of a modelling sub-committee than a full FMD science group, and that “at times there were polarised views within the group but no convincing mechanism for handling conflicts of opinion”. He omits to say that this refers among others to Dr Paul Kitching and Dr Alex Donaldson from Pirbright Laboratory, the only veterinary scientists with FMD expertise in the group, whose opinions were largely ignored.
He goes on to describe the extraordinary way in which the novel and unvalidated concepts of extended slaughter were introduced – in Scotland, plans were developed for a three kilometre pre-emptive sheep cull “informally at first, and as far as we have been able to discover, without any scientific advice”, while in England the Chief Veterinary Officer “feared that a national three kilometre pre-emptive cull was neither practical not likely to be legal”. He mentions the computer modelling of pre-emptive slaughter within smaller radii than three kilometres, and states that “somewhere in the midst of this, the idea was born that a contiguous cull would have similar impact to a one-and-a-half kilometre cull”. He was unable to establish the precise rationale for the forty-eight hour target, nor any formal record of the decision to introduce the new culling policies.
Despite the haphazard way in which such crucial decisions were made, and without any attempt to examine their effectiveness, Anderson seems to believe that they worked and recommends that provision for pre-emptive culling should be made for future outbreaks, and that existing law be clarified and strengthened to facilitate this. Already we have seen the government pointing to these recommendations as further justification for draconian powers within the Animal Death Bill, which was originally thrown out by the House of Lords and is being pushed through for a second time at the time of writing – yet Anderson has not even claimed to examine the issues in any depth.
The implications for small-scale livestock and pet owners are clear; if there is a next time, the control policy will employ more draconian pre-emptive slaughter than in 2001. I recently interviewed the CSA, David King, for an American film-maker and he confirmed this fact to specific questioning, on camera.
Anderson considers only policy matters surrounding vaccination, leaving scientific aspects to the Royal Society. Unfortunately he repeats misinformation even in this area without checking the underlying facts; for instance, he describes the use of vaccination in the Netherlands as suppressive (i.e. vaccinate to kill) to allow a more orderly process for slaughter and disposal, whereas the Dutch actually obtained EU permission for protective vaccination (i.e. to live), applied this successfully to halt the spread of disease, and only then reverted to slaughter of vaccinates for purely political reasons of international trade. Another example is his inclusion of the extraordinary claim that vaccination would have had a “negative impact on tourism” with no attempt to compare this against the far more damaging effects of mass slaughter and burning pyres.
He does nevertheless note that “contingency planning for vaccination was minimal” and that the UK government had failed to implement EU guidelines in this area. He details the scientific recommendation that emergency vaccination should be used, for which EU authorisation was given on 30th March, and notes that sufficient vaccine stocks and trained staff were in place to implement this. He correctly identifies the National Farmers Union (NFU) as blocking this move, and remaining resolutely opposed to vaccination throughout the crisis (in confirmation of this, I also interviewed Ben Gill of the NFU with the film crew and he assured us, on camera, that food industry concerns had been a minor side issue and that he personally claimed the credit for stopping the proposed use of vaccination).
Anderson recommends that the option of vaccination should form part of any future strategy for FMD control, but is vague on how this will be achieved in the face of the intransigent prejudice that was seen in the UK during 2001.
The implication for smallholders and pet owners is that the future use of vaccination is still very far from assured, and that much work remains to be done before vaccination to live will actually replace mass slaughter.
The economics of the crisis are covered in some detail, albeit with similar shortcomings to those outlined above. Nevertheless the unavoidable conclusion is reached that the enormous total costs incurred by the UK economy during the crisis were out of all proportion to the minor agricultural export trade that was supposedly being protected. He recommends that a cost benefit analysis of FMD control strategies should be made and maintained.
BIOSECURITY and TRACEABILITY
Anderson identifies poor standards of biosecurity within farming and concludes that breaches may have contributed to local spread of disease. He draws particular attention to the “blue box” areas in which strict biosecurity measures were enforced by DEFRA personnel and police, with dramatic effect. He acknowledges the many submissions to the Inquiry (of which mine was one) that argued “more emphasis on preventing spread by movement restrictions and biosecurity, in addition to rapid slaughter of infected premises and dangerous contacts, would have been sufficient to control the epidemic without pre-emptive slaughter strategies”. He recommends that Farm Assurance schemes be overhauled and that lax farming practice be liable to punishment. He further recommends that the 20-day movement standstill restriction should remain in permanent place (The CSA, David King, told me on camera that this was his personal recommendation to the Prime Minister) and that compulsory electronic tagging for all livestock species be introduced as soon as possible.
The implication for smallholders is that we can expect a raft of further restrictive regulation to be imposed upon the keeping, identification and movement of livestock within the near future.
For the informed reader, the Lessons Learned report is a disappointment, an opportunity largely wasted. There is some valuable material within its pages, but the many mistakes and above all, the omissions, emasculate its potential for beneficial change.
Here was the opportunity to establish exactly what happened and who was responsible for the biggest peacetime crisis to affect the UK for a generation, and to lay the framework for a better way of handling such an epidemic in the future. That opportunity was not only missed, it was misused to provide a false curtain of respectability to unsound science and to wrong decisions. Anderson invited his audience at Okehampton to castigate him if he failed in his task – I take the opportunity now to tell him that in my view he has indeed comprehensively failed.
As outlined above, the implications for the smallholder and pet owner of the Lessons Learned report include the following:
- Historically, lessons have been learned from FMD epidemics but never implemented
- The impact and enormous cost of the 2001 epidemic have forced the government to take action this time
- The sweeping new powers proposed within the Animal Death Bill are likely to pass into law
- Pre-emptive slaughter on a more draconian scale than 2001 will be the immediate response to a fresh FMD outbreak
- Vaccination to live will not become available in the UK until further political hurdles and NFU prejudice have been overcome
- The twenty day standstill rule will remain in force in perpetuity
- Electronic tagging of livestock will become compulsory
- All livestock movements will be reportable and traceable by law
- Farm assurance and licensing schemes will be re-assessed and compliance may become compulsory
- Biosecurity will become an expected, and possibly compulsory element of all farm livestock management
In general terms, then, we can expect that a raft of “preventative” measures will be enforced in the near future to affect all of us, not only farmers and smallholders, but domestic pet owners as well. It may be that none of these measures in isolation will appear too onerous or unreasonable; however, the combined effect will be very significant. Keeping animals, especially farm livestock, on a small scale is set to become far more difficult in the near future as a result of the Lessons Learned report. Regulation, restriction and bureaucracy will all increase by an order of magnitude above the level that we currently suffer.
Next month, I examine the Royal Society’s report in detail.
The full Lessons Learned report may be ordered online at www.tso.co.uk/bookshop
Or by post from: TSO, PO Box 29, Norwich NR3 1GN
Telephone 0870 600 5522
Details of the forthcoming documentary film on the FMD epidemic may be seen at www.nobodytalksaboutit.com
e-mail me at: email@example.com
For my view on Farm Licensing, see “Country Smallholding” May 2002