Back to website



11:00 - 24 January 2005

THE Government's plans for tackling a future outbreak of foot and mouth disease have been thrown into disarray after the government's Chief Scientist suggested that vaccination was still not a practical option for controlling the disease.

Professor Sir David King, one of the architects of the controversial contiguous cull policy which led to the slaughter of millions of healthy farm animals in 2001, said he remained unconvinced that emergency vaccination could work.

His comments will fuel fears that the Government has done little more than pay lip service to vaccination, despite the recommendations of a string of inquiries suggesting it should be used in any future FMD epidemic.

Speaking in an interview, Sir David said he was concerned that there was still no validated test for distinguishing between a healthy, vaccinated animal and one which had the disease but was not showing clinical signs.

Sir David suggested that there would be little point in vaccinating as the lack of a test meant the animals would have to be slaughtered anyway.

"We need a validated test," he said. "My worry is that if there were an epidemic tomorrow, the British public might be expecting vaccination to be used."

Sir David, who is a professor of chemistry at Cambridge University, also defended the contiguous cull, which involved the slaughter of all livestock on farms neighbouring infected premises.

He described the operation to bring the 2001 epidemic under control as "a major victory for science" and pointed out that the total number of animals slaughtered in the UK fell during 2001, as food imports were sucked in to supplement the paralysed British livestock industry.

He added: "Something like five or six million [animals] were probably slaughtered in connection with the epidemic. That means fewer animals were going to abattoirs for food production and we were importing meat at that time.

"It's not really an issue of saving animals, it's saving hardship for farmers that we should really be focusing on."

His comments appear to directly contradict the official policy of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which suggests that it would give early consideration to using vaccination in any future outbreak, despite the lack of a validated test. Defra suggests that a "vaccinate to live" policy would be possible.

However, Defra's predecessor department, the ministry of agriculture, was quickly sidelined by Downing Street in 2001, with the Prime Minister preferring to rely on the advice of Sir David and his "expert group" of scientists in devising policy.

Anthony Gibson, regional director of the South West National Farmers' Union, said Sir David's comments were "desperately disappointing".

He described the contiguous cull as "an unscientific, authoritarian disgrace" and warned that the public would never accept a repetition of it.

He said the Government should have invested much more heavily to ensure that existing vaccine tests were validated.

He said: "All the inquiries into foot and mouth said that in future vaccination should be the control method of choice. That is not to say that it would be suitable in every scenario, but the whole country will certainly expect it to be available for use.

"If Sir David is saying it is not, then it is another example of the Government failing in its duty to implement the recommendations of its own inquiries."

Mr Gibson said Sir David appeared to have "no understanding" of farming or the "heartbreak" suffered by farmers who were forced to watch the destruction of entire pedigree herds in their farmyards. He added: "To him it appears to be a dry statistical exercise, whereas to those involved it was flesh, blood, tears, sweat and heartbreak."