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Muckspreader 28 July 2004 (Private Eye)

Anyone who still thinks there is any vestige of sanity left in the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Affairs might consider the latest report from Defra’s Veterinary Laboratory Agency pronouncing that an epidemic of foot and mouth could sweep across Britain “once every 65 years”. Considering our last epidemic was only three years ago, this might seem consoling. If the next outbreak isn’t due until 2066, we can sit back without too many worries. But we then recall that, prior to 2001, the previous major epidemic was in 1967, only 34 years before the 2001 outbreak, and we might begin to wonder why the confidence that history will not repeat itself. Worse is to come, as we read on in the VLA’s report, snappily titled “The Risk Assessment for the Import of Contaminated Meat and Meat Products into Great Britain and the Sunsequent Exposure of British Livestock”. We then see that, although the next epidemic isn’t due until 2066, nevertheless the probability of one breaking out has “doubled since 2003”, which, according to the VLA, represents “no rise in real terms”. The truth is that these guys, punching away at their computer screens, haven’t the foggiest notion of when Britain might again be hit by FMD, any more than they yet have the faintest proof of why we were hit by the epidemic of Pan-Asian O FMD in 2001, or where it came from - except that two years earlier the European Commission had warned MAFF that the chances of an outbreak at any time were “highly likely”. This was because this particular strain of the virus had in recent years been hurtling round the world, and had already caused significant damage in Albania and Macedonia in 1996, where the epidemic was only brought rapidly to a halt because the EU itself insisted on intervening with emergency mass-vaccination.

An even more startling fact which came to light during Defra’s recent ‘simulation exercise’ to test its contingency plans for any future FMD epidemic is that, despite all the post-mortems which have taken place since 2001, Defra has apparently learned absolutely nothing from its catastrophic blunders at that time. The EU’s new FMD directive makes clear that, if there is another outbreak of the virus anywhere in the EU, the first line of defence will be vaccination. There must be no repeat of the appalling mass-slaughter of healthy animals we saw in the 2001 crisis. We must go to vaccination straightaway, as we should have done three years ago.

But then along came Defra’s ‘simulation’, codenamed ‘Operation Hornbeam’, supposedly reconstructing what will have happened by ‘Days Seven and Eight’ of another epidemic. The computers showed that there had already been 57 separate outbreaks, in four widely separated parts of the country: in other words an epidemic already raging out of control. Little Ben Bradshaw proudly announced that Defra had already slaughtered 17,400 animals, which made it all seem uncannily like a repeat of 2001. And only now, according to the Defra scenario, was Rosa Klebb (aka Margaret Beckett) telling the House of Commons that the Government was considering a limited programme of vaccination for cattle, in just two of the four areas affected. Not for nothing are they known as ‘Defra and Blindra’. Fortunately, however, the EU has also made clear that next time Brussels will be in charge of operations from Day One - so with luck Defra may not be given the chance to make quite such a monumental cock-up ever again.