(See also by Professor Michell on this site)

Veterinary Record March 9th Letters

SIR, - Eventually, the impact of the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak on the public, political and scientific standing of the veterinary profession will rest less on the direct memory of those who saw large numbers of veterinary surgeons and students performing selflessly and thoroughly in the most harrowing conditions, that on the findings of the various inquiries. The potential is there for the 'Shipman effect', that is, the unwarranted undermining of general confidence on the basis of very specific shortcomings. While none of the inquiries seeks scapegoats, politically it is inevitable that scapegoats mus be found: the outbreak casued too much financial and emotional damage to be shrugged off as an act of God and handled similarly if it were to happen again. Already there are academics who advocated the unprecedented slaughter of healthy animals who remain determined not even to contemplate that they may have been mistaken, despite Dr David Shannon's admission (Science and Public Affairs, February, p 7 ) that 'the initial modelling was done without a full understanding of the disease and the nature of the industry'. Rather, they assert that the veterinary profession was too mathematically illiterate to appreciate the brilliance of their solution to ending the epidemic by early June 2001.

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons called unambiguously for an independent inquiry, modelled on the Northumberland Report into the 1967/68 outbreak. The lack of such an inquiry is most serious in the examination of what was done and the lessons to be learned, since this is the most political aspect. It is, therefore, wholly inappropriate that this aspect, far from being subject to independent scrutiny, is being covered 'in-house'; when those holding the aces keep the cards so close to their chest, suspicion seems well founded. The House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in their report on the 'Impact of foot-and-mouth disease' (January 23), noted that the 'lessons learned' inquiry was so closely linked to the Cabinet Office that it 'would inevitably make people doubt whether it is truly independent', doubts echoed by Mr Richard Lissack QC (The Times, February 19), who asked how there could be confidence in its independence since it was chaired by a former adviser to the Prime Minister and based in the Cabinet Office. Incredibly, the Prime Minister, who voluntarily took charge, a few weeks before calling an early General Election, and thereby presided over the introduction of contiguous culling, will give his personal account but there will be no transcript; his evidence will merely be referred to in the minutes. Those in our profession who rightly called for an independent inquiry should reinforce, to the Select Committee, the wisdom of its scepticism and encourage it to probe to the darkest depths.

It is now clear (VR, December 15, 2001, pp 729-743; December 22, 2001, p 778) that the epidemic was already subsiding before the contiguous overkill, with all the suffering and huge logistical logjams which it created, was even announced, so the political stakes are extremely high. This 'inquiry' lacks any semblance of openness, accountability, transparency or even basic probity - it has the formula for whitewash and the stench of 'Slaughtergate'.

Bob Michell, The Mill Barn, Mill Lane, EXning Suffolk CB8 7JW

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NB the date 23rd Jan. Professor Michell refers to is incorrect

Efra Committee 16th Jan ".