Animal cull 'based on incorrect assumption'

By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent

(Filed: 19/02/2002)

TONY BLAIR'S order to slaughter more than 10 million animals to combat foot and mouth was based on flawed, biased and poorly thought through scientific advice, the former chief scientist at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said yesterday.

Dr David Shannon, chief scientist at the Ministry of Agriculture and Defra during the BSE and foot and mouth crises, said the committee that advised the Prime Minister made incorrect assumptions about the outbreak because it did not fully understand the disease, the food industry or farming practices.

His attack on the contiguous cull policy, which brought medieval scenes of burning animal pyres to rural Britain and cost tourism billions of pounds, comes on the eve of tomorrow's anniversary of the epidemic's first recorded case.

It also comes as the High Court considers a challenge to the Government's decision not to hold a public inquiry into the world's worst outbreak of foot and mouth.

Iain Duncan Smith, writing in The Telegraph today, condemns the "dither, delay, sheer incompetence and lack of effective co-ordination across Whitehall that characterised their response to the disease".

Calling for "a full, open and independent public inquiry into foot and mouth", he says: "We need to establish, beyond doubt, how the outbreak of the disease began, how it spiralled out of control so quickly and what lessons need to be learned so that we can prevent it from ever happening again."

Dr Shannon, who retired at the end of December, said that he was expressing his unease at the way the advice on the outbreak was given to the Government because he was keen to ensure that lessons were learned through the various private inquiries that had been established.

He said that the advisory committee set up by Prof David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, was "an unusual group" that "in retrospect needed more independent expertise on diagnostics, practical expertise on the use of vaccines and serology".

He expressed unease about the way advice was given to the Government because "initially, the David King committee was predominantly a group of epidemiological modellers, and this was at the point when it was reaching major conclusions about the scale of the outbreak."

The committee that formed the policy for the crisis was "an informal grouping of those who could attend . . . to some extent determined by the time contributors had available," he said.

A formally constituted scientific advisory committee would have looked considerably different, he said.

Prof King's foot and mouth Science Advisory Group was dominated by the work of Prof Neil Ferguson, Dr Christl Donnelly and Prof Roy Anderson, all epidemiologists at Imperial College.

Their reliance on the first serious test in medicine of computer modelling, used to predict the spread of the epidemic, led to accusations that the Government was pursuing a policy of "culling by computer" and that not enough thought was given by the Government to the practical and logistical consequences of widespread slaughter, in particular the disposal of slaughtered carcasses.

"It [the group] had enormous power with no direct responsibility, it seemed to me," said Dr Shannon. "It was driving what the Government was doing - and of course if there were any flaws in its composition or mode of operation you could have a flawed mechanism driving policy."

He blamed the composition of Prof King's Special Advisory Group for its failure to foresee that a contiguous cull policy would lead to vast piles of discarded carcasses littering the countryside.

"The modelling was carried out in a strict disease control mode without taking account of the environmental consequences of the outcomes," Dr Shannon said. "The absence of the full range of sciences meant that many of these issues had to be debated elsewhere and subsequently."

He suggested that the software used to predict the spread of the disease was not sufficiently sophisticated for the purpose and needed further development.

Peter Ainsworth, Tory shadow agriculture spokesman, said Dr Shannon's criticisms of the Science Advisory Group were "very disturbing".

"It suggests they were making it up as they went along, that they were insufficiently broad-based and that there was a faint whiff of chaos about it." He added: "Here is a man that was at the heart of the decision-making process and what he says begins to explain some of the problems with which we became all too familiar later in the crisis."

The attack by Dr Shannon, one of the Government's most trusted advisers, is so damaging that it prompted Prof King, to "make an exception" to his policy of "not engaging in public debate with members of the group that helped me deliver scientific advise to ministers on foot and mouth disease".

Responding to Dr Shannon's accusations made in an article in Science and Public Affairs, a publication of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Prof King said the group was broad based from the start.

He added: "The epidemiological models provided strong scientific underpinning for the advice we gave to Government. There were four models built in very different ways, all of which supported the advice we gave.

"The models used data provided by Government in a groundbreaking partnership. Ample time was given to discussing the underlying assumptions of each of the models, their validity and their applicability to the field."

Environmental consequences "were dealt with by other government bodies".