Back to warmwell.com website


".....modellers had announced that the outbreak had been "out of control" (in the scientific context) and had therefore favoured what Dr Shannon described as a mathematical approach of "slaughter by numbers". Generic models had supported the contiguous cull but Dr Shannon had suggested that the data be scrutinised by independent modellers."


 FOOT AND MOUTH DISEASE LESSONS LEARNED INQUIRY

Note of meeting

Date: 8 April 2002

Location: 9 Whitehall

Present: Dr David Shannon – retired Chief Scientist, DEFRA

Dr Iain Anderson, Inquiry Chairman

Alun Evans, Secretary to the Inquiry

 

1. Dr Anderson welcomed Dr Shannon and confirmed the purpose of the meeting. A

member of the DEFRA Inquiry Liaison Unit was also present. Dr Anderson invited

Dr Shannon to make any opening remarks.

 

2. Dr Shannon described his role and that of his group prior to his retirement. As

Chief Scientist of MAFF/DEFRA, he had been responsible for the operation of his

group, which dealt with a broad range of topics. About 110 people, about half of

whom had been scientifically trained (although not necessarily to PhD level), had

been in the group which had comprised one policy and two scientific divisions. He

cited five broad areas of responsibility:

Providing scientific advice, especially of a strategic nature;

Managing the department’s Research and Development programme;

International relations on R&D (especially in the EU);

A representational role on various bodies and councils etc;

Plant genetic resources.

 

3. He had provided scientific advice, especially on strategic issues and areas where

there were no more specific arrangements such as SEAC for BSE). There had

also been other sources of scientific advice within MAFF, not exclusively his group.

 

4. Dr Shannon had been responsible for the department’s R&D programme and its

research policy. Budgets for the research had been held by the relevant policy

group to ensure that projects underpinned policy. Thus the R&D budget for FMD

had been held by those responsible for FMD policy. The FMD research

programme had been about to undergo review at the time of the outbreak and the

Institute of Animal Health (IAH) Pirbright Laboratory had submitted comments

regarding the FMD research programme in January 2001.

 

5. He had been involved in international relations related to R&D, with the EU and

worldwide as appropriate, e.g. with the USA in discussion about the SmartCycler

equipment.

 

6. Dr Shannon had represented the department on research councils, such as the

BBSRC, and had been familiar with the work of Pirbright. He had also been a

member of the Ownership Board of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA).

 

7. Dr Anderson asked about the level of awareness of the department to FMD prior to

20 February 2001. Dr Shannon replied that experienced vets had headed one of

his scientific divisions and there had been four vets on the staff. There had been

co-ordination with the vets in Jim Scudamore’s and Neil Thornton’s groups. Dr

Shannon’s group had been an interface between MAFF policy and scientific advice

from the wider world. In terms of awareness and priorities BSE had been the

headline policy issue prior to 20 February. Scrapie in sheep, TB and Classical

Swine Fever had also been significant priorities, as had non-animal health issues

such as human responses to organophosphorus dips, antibiotic resistance and

food safety. Rabies had been an important policy issue, but not at R&D level.

 

8. In contrast, exotic diseases had not been a particular priority, although the

department had an ongoing programme of research covering a range of exotic

diseases including FMD. Dr Shannon commented that since an outbreak of FMD

had not occurred for 33 years, there would have been difficulty making a case to

Treasury to invest substantially in better vaccines and diagnostics for FMD at that

time, given the urgency of other priorities. He added that he had not been

responsible for surveillance, which was entirely for the CVO, but there were

obviously very close links, e.g. with R&D on diagnostic tests.

 

9. Dr Shannon said that the relationship between his group and that of the Chief

Scientific Adviser (CSA) had been good. They had exchanged frequent

communications and had supported each other in attempts to secure funding for

R&D. As a formal process, the CSA’s committee comprising the Chief Scientists of

all departments had met about every six weeks to discuss emerging issues and the

role of science in government. BSE and issues of inter-departmental interest had

been raised e.g. Gulf War Syndrome. FMD had not been discussed, although Dr

Shannon had discussed biosecurity in its broadest sense with his MoD colleagues.

 

10. However, following the experience of BSE, a horizon-scanning R&D project had

been established within the Department’s programme.

 

11. Turning to the events of the outbreak, Dr Shannon said that, following 20 February,

he had spoken with his Head of Veterinary Science and had offered his veterinary

resources to the CVO, although they were not drafted into operations, as he

presumed the CVO thought they were better doing other work on BSE, scrapie and

TB which were ongoing priorities. He had taken the view that there was no need to

interpose himself between the CVO and his source of expert scientific advice,

Pirbright, as long as the relationship worked effectively, and all the evidence was

that it did. He had considered research needs, but there was little else he could do

in the short term to support the vets.

 

12. On 20 March, Dr Shannon had proposed to Baroness Hayman a "B team" of

scientists to support the "A team" (who had been dealing with the epidemic until

then). This would have been a back-up source of expertise which could have,

hopefully, taken some of the less high profile work off those most involved in the

front line. However, this team never got going because, at about the same time, it

had been decided that Dr Shannon would attend the FMD Science Group that the

CSA (Professor David King) had convened.

 

13. Dr Shannon reflected on whether, in hindsight, he and his staff should have

engaged earlier with the modelling work being carried out in MAFF. He knew that

Pirbright had investigated the epidemiology, but perhaps they could have been

better supported. Epidemiological expertise had been brought in from the VLA and

from overseas to form part of the MAFF epidemiological team at Page Street that

had collaborated on the Interspread model from the VLA, but this team had

reported to the CVO or the Head of Animal Health, not to the MAFF Chief Scientist.

 

14. Dr Shannon’s major involvement with handling of the outbreak had been via his

membership of the CSA’s Science Group, since the first meeting on 21 March

convened by Sir John Krebs. Dr Shannon had captured his views about the CSA’s

Science Group in two minutes he had written at the time, and in an article that had

been published in Science & Public Affairs. He stressed that he did not wish to be

critical of modelling per se, yet it was important to learn the lessons. In his minute

of 12 April, he had expressed his concerns to Professor King about the way in

which the group had been operating, and had subsequently also written to the

MAFF Permanent Secretary (Brian Bender) on 27 April.

 

15. Dr Shannon had been concerned that the group had not been formally constituted

and had functioned as a personal advisory committee to the CSA, rather than

reporting to Government via the relevant Secretaries of State (MAFF and DTI). The

members of formal committees, such as SEAC, were accountable for their advice,

but the Science Group had enjoyed enormous power without any formal

responsibility.   MAFF had picked up the bill, but due to time constraints, the

department had not had time to comment in a considered way on advice which had

gone straight to the Prime Minister and, on certain occasions, to the media.

 

16. The composition of the CSA’s Science Group had changed over time. The initial

composition had not been as Dr Shannon would have expected, but had resembled

a modelling sub-committee. Initially, there had been limited knowledge of

agricultural systems and serology, and it contained no FMD experts from outside

the UK. In future, he suggested that the numbers of experts needed in different

areas (for example virology) should be decided and others such as economists and

representatives of the wider public interest should also be members.

 

17. The CSA, in Dr Shannon’s view, had been too closely involved in the deliberations

of the group to take an independent view. Challenging the output of the group had

been difficult, since it could have been regarded as a challenge to the integrity of

the CSA himself.

 

18. As an example, Dr Shannon explained that the computer models had included

assumptions, the details of which had not been understood except by the

modellers.  One factor (the number of infected farms that arose from one IP) in the

Imperial College model had been halved during the course of the outbreak.

However to his knowledge this had not then been used to reproduce the original

curves A, B and C used in publicity, or to apply them retrospectively. Dr Shannon

believed that it was essential that such a scientific advisory group should, in future

be able to challenge assumptions, such as those used by the modellers.

 

19. Vets and representatives from MAFF who had attended the CSA’s group had not

been independent of the modelling work and had not been in a position to

challenge the conclusions. To some extent, this was because any challenge from

them had sounded defensive since they were directly involved in disease control

measures themselves.

 

20. Whilst many of the academic members of the Science Group had been able to

make time to consider their advice, other members had had insufficient time to

make decisions or comment. For example, Pirbright with all its expertise had found

its resources stretched to the limit and they had found difficulty in contributing fully.

Dr Shannon wondered whether more support could be given to those short of

resource in future.

 

21. He also cited some other lessons for the future regarding the science advisory

committee:

Questions should be posed and responded to formally

The department receiving the advice should be free to challenge it (e.g. the

CSA should be independent)

The committee’s views should be formally recorded and communicated , so

there were no surprises

A shadow committee should be established to be available, if and as

necessary, and to plan in advance of an outbreak.

 

22. Asked about whether science had led the policy Dr Shannon confirmed that, in his

view, it had however there had been two opposing views. On the one hand

modellers had announced that the outbreak had been "out of control" (in the

scientific context) and had therefore favoured what Dr Shannon described as a

mathematical approach of "slaughter by numbers". Generic models had supported

the contiguous cull but Dr Shannon had suggested that the data be scrutinised by

independent modellers.  For example the distinction between Dangerous Contact

(DC) and Contiguous Premises (CP) had been subtle and allocation of the data

required judgement. On the other hand there were those who believed that there

should have been a more risk-based approach. The vets had consistently

expressed their view that the disease would be controlled given time and

resources. Pirbright had apparently not been convinced of the need for the

contiguous cull except in so far as it would help to tackle accidental spread of the

disease caused by, for example, poor biosecurity.

 

23. Dr Shannon said that he and his MAFF colleagues had voiced their concerns and

had tried to bring to bear practicality in the Group’s discussions. The group had

acknowledged these concerns. Richard Cawthorne and John Wilesmith had been

considering regional variations and geography, so there had been an attempt to

build in recognition of local factors.

 

24. One of the benefits of the Science Group had been the emphasis given to

achieving the 24-hour deadline for report to slaughter, even though it had been an

established target well before the outbreak.

 

25. On the question of resources, Dr Shannon commented that once the PM became

involved, he had emphasised that if additional resources were required, the

Department should have them. Prior to his involvement, the impression obtained

was that the Department might have to meet the additional costs at the expense of

other programmes. He recommended that, in future, finances should be rapidly

assessed and a mechanism identified to trigger release of resources.

 

26. A policy decision had been taken to release the data requested by the modelling

groups following the 21 March meeting, although Dr Shannon had not been aware

of how the modellers had received data prior to then. The modellers had raised

constant concerns about its quality and issues surrounding the quality of data had

been flagged up and addressed by MAFF at the meetings. One of the problems

was that some farm data had been used for different purposes from those for which

it had originally been intended. That said, Dr Shannon strongly supported the

contribution that modelling could make in any further disease outbreaks and

believed that the discipline had made much progress during the course of the

outbreak.

 

27. In response to a question on bioterrorism, Dr Shannon replied that a terrorist attack

was likely to be widespread as distinct from a natural outbreak, which might start

from a narrow focus. Hence disease control plans based on a natural outbreak

might not be adequate to cope with a terrorist attack. He assumed that colleagues

were considering these issues more fully. He agreed with the US view that farms

were vulnerable to attack but equally did not have the publicity value of events such

as those that occurred on 11 September.

 

28. Dr Shannon’s said that the biggest lesson of the crisis, in his view, was that events

like this would happen, particularly with increased world trade and rapid human

travel and it was necessary to be prepared for them.

FMD Inquiry Secretariat

April 2002