Labour and the farmers

It seems extremely unlikely that the new Labour government will hold a public enquiry into this year's foot and mouth disaster, if only because the government, as well as everyone else, comes out of it so badly.

It was of course the Labour government who, all too late, instigated the public inquiry into the BSE disaster. It may be much longer before a new Tory government can investigate this 'Labour' disaster.

One of the main findings of the Philips inquiry was that public debate during such crises was essential, that dissenting advice should be heard, that there should be full and open discussion. The Philips report was published less than five months before foot and mouth disease appeared. And don't forget, with BSE we were genuinely dealing with the unknown. With FMD we were dealing with, as far as Pirbright were concerned anyway, with something akin to a family friend.

But were lessons learnt? Was there free and open discussion? Can a leopard change its spots? There has been no free and open debate. The issue of the vaccination option was taboo. There was no public discussion, particularly by Maff. and the NFU, disastrously, did more than anyone to silence discussions on vaccination, and deliberately to confuse the issue.

But heads will roll, and this is why the 'whispering campaign' has already started. Senior Maff officials have a pretty good ides that some of them are for the high jump, and they're getting their retaliation in first. They are now blaming the government's chief scientific adviser, Prof David King, and central government advisor, Prof Roy Anderson (who left oxford university less than a year ago under a cloud of controversy) - neither of whom is an animal disease specialist- for what Maff insiders are now calling a "completely unjustified " increase in the contiguous slaughter and "slaughter on suspicion."

All the while, it seems the real experts, the chiefs at the Pirbright lab- one of the world's centres of excellence in the study of FMD- were effectively sidelined early on in the crisis. We now have this on the authority of the deputy head of Pirbright, Dr Paul Kitching, who has now started to speak his mind, in view of the fact he has a new job in Canada. He said the epidemiological models coming out of Anderson's imperial College- which conveniently if a little blatantly forecast that the disease would disappear by election day- were essentially a load of nonsense as no one had the data on which to base such predictions.

I myself spoke to Dr Kitching- who I have never met- in March to check a story I had written about world wide use of vaccine control of FMD- and he indicated quite clearly that the sensible way forward in the UK after just three weeks of the epidemic was limited (hopefully) vaccination.

Kitchen said publicly later that the low level of infectivity in the 2001 UK epidemic made the widespread slaughter "totally unjustified" Prof Anderson conceded later that they might have got it wrong with the contiguous and SOS slaughter "but it wasn't us who proposed the 3k culling policy". There is much disagreement as to where the 3k slaughter came from, but some are pointing the finger at chief vet Jim Scudemore. There is a good deal of finger pointing going on at the moment.

Just before Easter, Prof King- clearly supported by PM Tony Blair- said that limited vaccination of dairy cows was the favoured option, and Downing Street put out the spin that vaccination would start about April 20th. But NFU presidents Ben Gill and Jim Walker put a spoke in that. They may have been misguided but they were only representing a sectional interest, and maybe only a section of this interest. Blair was head of the government; his was a spineless dereliction of duty. Maybe at this point Blair and king decided to let the NFU and Maff have their way, they would pay heavily later if anything went wrong.

Everyone had an incentive to cook the figures.

The newly elected Blair government, meanwhile, will not forgive what they see as ruthless selfishness of the NFU- nor the fact that the NFU made the government look stupid and ineffectual, (one Downing Street insider told me, "farmers are the only group of professionals polled who overwhelmingly supported the Tories") Ben Gill may have to pay heavily for his short term political victory. In his letter to The Times just before the election he wrote;" For any future outbreak of FMD we must find alternatives to culling. We must examine all possible control measures. Vaccination may well form a part of future policy."

Maybe too little too late.

In the meantime, the past four months will not go down in the annals of Whitehall as a magnificent example of cohesive political and administrative efficiency.

It won't happen again, or will it?