09:00 - 03 December 2003

The Government is to simulate a major foot and mouth outbreak next year in a bid to avoid the disastrous mistakes made during the 2001 crisis.

The two-day exercise in June will involve ministers, vets, farmers, the media and hundreds of officials across the country.

And unlike 2001 the control strategy will focus on using vaccination rather than mass culling to prevent the rapid spread of the highly contagious disease.

In a brief statement the Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said "good progress" had been made in resolving issues surrounding the use of vaccination.

The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has now procured large stocks of vaccine and placed a private company on permanent standby to begin vaccination five days into an outbreak if veterinary experts believe it will be effective.

Critics last night seized on the developments as a tacit criticism of the controversial contiguous cull policy, which led to the slaughter of millions of healthy animals in 2001.

Exmoor farmer Guy Thomas-Everard, whose 1,000-strong herd of cattle was threatened with slaughter in 2001, last night welcomed the Government's change of policy.

"It is very good news that they are putting vaccination at the top of the list," he said. "Hopefully it a sign that some of the lessons are being learned. It is a great shame that they did not do it last time and that we saw so much needless slaughter. Vaccination was not the only problem - in our case they got the risk assessment completely wrong - but it would have made a big difference."

But others remain concerned about the fine print of Defra's latest foot and mouth contingency plans, which include reserve provisions for "firebreak culls" of animals that are "not necessarily exposed to the disease".

Janet Bayley, of the National Foot and Mouth Group, said the emphasis on vaccination was welcome, but warned that the plans could still allow a repeat of the contiguous cull.

She said: "Obviously we welcome the progress on vaccination, but the detail in the contingency plan gives even greater powers for the Government to kill healthy animals. That is not what we envisaged as the outcome of the discussions that have gone on."

A Defra spokesman said the two-day event would be the culmination of a series of exercises designed to test the "strategic, tactical and operational" strengths and weaknesses of the contingency plans.

Details of precisely what will take place were scarce yesterday although the spokesman said that it would involve "stakeholders" like vets and farmers, as well as officials. It will also involve the creation of an operational control room in London to co-ordinate work around the country. But it will not involve sealing off farms or the slaughter of any livestock and troops are unlikely to be called in.

The spokesman said: "The inquiries into the events of 2001 recommended that the contingency plans should be subject to regular rehearsals and that is what we are doing. It will be a pretty far-reaching exercise.

"One of the important things is that it is not just Defra involved."

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said the exercise would be welcomed by farmers provided it got to the root of the problems suffered in 2001.

"It is quite obvious that they had failed to prepare for the previous debacle," he said. "One always hopes there will not be another outbreak, but while we are importing meat from areas of the world where it is endemic it is always a risk.

" The question is whether two days will be enough to ensure that this thing is foolproof. One of the biggest problems it needs to explore is the culture of secrecy, which led to appalling communications last time and a situation where the centre was not listening to what people on the ground were saying."

The inquiry reports into the 2001 disaster were fiercely critical of the contingency plans held by the then Ministry of Agriculture. The department's plans envisaged dealing with a maximum of just 10 cases of the disease. In the event there were more than 2,000.

The department was also criticised for ignoring a warning from a senior Government vet that the department's resources would be "overwhelmed" by a major outbreak.