Muckspreader 1 November 2005 Private EyeOn reading a recent report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee on the 2001 foot-and-mouth disaster, one bemused expert commented ‘those MPs must get their brain cells from Oxfam’. The PAC’s chairman, Edward Leigh (who at one time even fancied his chances of putting in for the Tory leadership), admitted that the government’s handling of the crisis had not been perfect, But he was quick to reassure the nation that Defra had since made ‘good progress’ in learning from those mistakes.
One point on which the MPs were agreed was that, if ever there were a repeat of the 2001 epidemic, the taxpayers must never again be asked to foot the bill (estimated at £3 billion). In future, as recommended by Defra, farmers must stump up all the costs themselves. This might sound all very well to an MP, but there are one or two little points it overlooks. For a start, the farmers won’t be given any extra say in how a future epidemic is tackled. Their job will simply be to pay for whatever the government decides must be done. And in 2001, of course, the reason why the bill was so astronomic was that the government made such an unholy shambles of its response.
It was not the farmers who ordered that infected animals could no longer be buried on the farms where they died, but must be carted around the country to huge burial pits and funeral pyres, spreading infection as they went. It was Maff and new EU regulations forbidding on-farm burial. It was not the farmers who ordered that 9 million healthy animals must be destroyed in the so-called ‘pre-emptive cull’. It was the government, knowingly breaking the law which laid down that animals could only be destroyed when they had been exposed to infection. Had the government heeded instead the advice from the world’s leading FMD experts, such as the late Professor Fred Brown and Dr Simon Barteling, and introduced an emergency vaccination programme to contain the disease, that bill to the taxpayers might have been cut by 90 percent.
In other words, what those supine MPs are now suggesting is that the crass incompetents in Defra should still call the shots (now armed with a whole battery of new semi-totalitarian powers to ensure their orders are carried out). Meanwhile the farmers must meekly accept whatever Defra decides should be done to them and their animals, and will then be sent the entire bill. Naturally the MPs accept Defra’s word that, if there was another outbreak, it would be handled better than last time. Defra has now hired more vets. It has its contingency plans in place. It might even, next time, be prepared to consider vaccination (because it has been ordered to do so by Brussels). But let us not forget what happened when in 2004 they put those plans to the test in their so-called ‘Operation Hornbeam’, presided over by Baby Ben Bradshaw. After a week they had already, according to the ‘simulation’, slaughtered 17,400 animals, and only now were they considering a very limited programme of vaccination for cattle. It all seemed uncannily like a repeat of the shambles of 2001. So the only difference now is that those MPs expect farmers to pick up the tab.