The Committee of Public Accounts has agreed to the following Report:
The 2001 Outbreak of Foot and Mouth DiseaseOur key conclusions are:
- The Department based its contingency plans for foot and mouth disease on the assumption that up to ten premises would be infected. In the event, however, at least 57 premises were infected by the time the first case was diagnosed. The plans did not consider any other scenarios, such as a worst case scenario or one based on the last big outbreak in 1967-68. Future plans should be based on an analysis of risks associated with foot and mouth disease and should incorporate a range of assumptions about the nature, size and spread of an outbreak, including a worst case scenario.
- The Department's contingency plans were directed solely at the agriculture industry. Yet the tourism industry suffered much more than any sector and incurred some £5 billion of losses. Contingency plans should not only address farming but also the difficulties likely to be experienced by other industries. Stakeholders in affected industries should be fully consulted about contingency plans; and should participate in the simulation exercises carried out to test them.
- Emergency vaccination was not used during the 2001 outbreak. The Government has announced that the option of vaccination would nevertheless form part of any future strategy for the control of foot and mouth disease. We cannot have a situation again where there is no clear-cut policy on whether and when vaccination is used. The Department's plans on vaccination should be clear and set out the circumstances and factors that would determine when vaccination would be adopted. The plans should be made known and explained to all relevant parties, including farmers, vets, and representatives of the food industry.
- The Department could have done many things differently. For example, it should have imposed a national movement ban from the first day; it should have kept the countryside open and not allowed the blanket closure of footpaths for such a long time; it should have brought senior administrators in earlier to take charge of local disease control; and it should have not disposed of carcasses on mass funeral pyres; but we recognise that we say these things with the benefit of hindsight. These and other lessons need to be incorporated in the Department's plans and processes for any future outbreak of infectious animal disease. The armed services were called in three weeks after the start of the outbreak and made an important contribution to eradicating the disease. One of the lessons from the 1967-68 outbreak was that the earlier the military can be called in the greater their impact will be. The lessons from the value of calling in the armed forces early should have been remembered from the 1967-68 outbreak. But it seems to have fallen out of the collective memory of the Department. Working closely with the Ministry of Defence, the Department should define the military's role and identify the tasks it would carry out in any future outbreak. There should be clear trigger points as to when military support is requested and brought into effect.
- Farmers received nearly £1,400 million in compensation and other payments for their slaughtered animals. The assessed values of animals rose threefold during the crisis, and with no functioning markets, the Department lacked a clear frame of reference to assess or influence the valuations against which compensation was paid. The Department allowed potential recipients of compensation to select and appoint the valuers. In future, systems of compensation to farmers for slaughtered animals need to give firmer control over the amounts paid. The Department needs better benchmarks for determining the rates paid for animals when markets are suspended; and it should not allow potential recipients of compensation to select and appoint the valuers.
- The total bill for measures to deal with the epidemic is expected to reach nearly £1,300 million by the time all claims are settled. The Department was in a weak negotiating position and had to pay a premium to get things done at maximum possible speed. The Department should negotiate pre-arranged rates and fees for goods and services, which could be brought quickly into use in the event of a future outbreak. Claw-back arrangements should be in place to prevent firms making excessive profits at the Department's expense. A list of approved contractors should be drawn up, and kept up to date, and the capabilities of firms to carry out contracted tasks should be tested in simulation exercises.
- The prevention of illegal meat imports is a key measure in avoiding foot and mouth disease. The trade in imported livestock is also high risk and requires special controls. The Department should ensure that the measures adopted in the United Kingdom are at least the equal of those elsewhere in the developed world, including Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
- An internal Departmental Report of February 1999, the Drummond Report, found considerable variations in the State Veterinary Service's readiness to deal with outbreaks of diseases, including foot and mouth. The Report expressed concern that a rapid spread of foot and mouth disease could quickly overwhelm the State Veterinary Service's resources, particularly if a number of separate outbreaks occurred at the same time. The Department had responded to many of the Report's findings but had not resolved a number of key issues, including the slaughter and disposal of carcasses, training of staff, and updating of existing contingency plans. Of 34 recommendations, 27 had been taken forward. However, it was the Department which commissioned the Report. In future, if the Department commissions a report of vital importance affecting animal health they should implement its recommendations and not procrastinate. Implementation of the Report was incomplete because there had been other major priorities for the State Veterinary Service, most importantly the public health issues surrounding Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. At the time the risks from foot and mouth disease were considered to be low. The outbreak of classical swine fever in the summer of 2000 had also interrupted implementation of the Report, although it did give a practical opportunity to put some of the Department's ideas into practice.
- In summary, many of the Department's difficulties in handling the outbreak reflect a narrow outlook and lack of contextual awareness. The tendency to focus on farming interests, important as these are, needs to be complemented by greater recognition of wider rural and national concerns. The Department also needs to build stronger and more confident partnerships with other relevant bodies in both the public and private sectors, so as to make better use of their expertise and resources. Longstanding attitudes are in need of reform, and the Department's new development programme for senior managers will need to be radical if the necessary change of outlook is to be achieved.
- Our detailed conclusions and recommendations are:
On contingency planning for a possible outbreak of foot and mouth disease
(i) If a serious outbreak of animal disease is to be brought quickly under control, effective co-operation is needed, not only among government bodies but also among those closely affected on the ground. But the Department did not involve stakeholders in the preparation of its contingency plans. When foot and mouth disease broke out in 2001, key organisations such as the National Farmers' Union, the Local Government Association and representatives of livestock interests either believed that the Department had no plans for an outbreak of foot and mouth disease or had not seen them. The Department should bring all interested parties on board and discuss its contingency plans with central and local government, farmers and other major stakeholders.
(ii) Failure by a farmer to report the disease after it had appeared in his pigs contributed to the widespread seeding of the disease and the unprecedented scale of the outbreak. The great majority of farmers take their responsibilities seriously, but there can be no guarantee that all will comply. Contingency plans must therefore take account of the risk of an outbreak not being reported promptly by the farmer concerned.
(iii) Identification of foot and mouth disease was difficult in the 2001 outbreak, partly because the disease is hard to detect in sheep, the main animals affected, but also because some farmers and vets did not know what symptoms to look out for. The Department should aim for a high degree of awareness of animal disease in the farming industry. It should work with other organisations, including those in the voluntary sector, to educate farmers and vets about diseases they might not have encountered, but which nevertheless present a real risk.
(iv) The Department is now revising its contingency plans for foot and mouth disease. But foot and mouth is only one of a range of serious animal health diseases and the Department will need to look at all its contingency plans afresh in the light of what happened in 2001.
On handling the outbreak
(v) A severe shortage of vets prevented the Department from getting on top of the disease in the crucial early weeks of the crisis. The State Veterinary Service cannot be permanently staffed to meet the demands it would face during a serious outbreak of animal disease. The Department needs to decide what measures are needed to increase veterinary resources quickly at the start of any crisis. It should also clarify the basis on which vets recruited from outside would be paid and the terms and conditions on which they would be employed.
(vi) The Department's computerised database for managing the outbreak—the Disease Control System—contained many basic errors, even locating some farms in the North Sea. These deficiencies delayed identification of the disease on infected farms and increased the time taken to slaughter animals. The Department needs to develop a reliable computer system to enable it to track the progress of any future outbreak of disease and to take swift and effective measures. The system needs to be fully maintained during periods when there are no disease outbreaks.
(vii) Bio-security measures were insufficient to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease in 2001 by people, animals and vehicles. In principle there would appear to be merit in the suggestion that the level of compensation for farmers should be linked to the adequacy of biosecurity on their premises, and the Department should consider whether a practical scheme could be devised.
(viii) A foot and mouth alert in June 2002 centred on a pig that could not be traced to its farm of origin. It is of great concern that, so soon after the devastating problems in 2001, farmers and abattoirs should still be handling unmarked animals. The Department needs to be able to trace all contacts speedily in the event of any future outbreak of animal disease. It should institute effective checks for unmarked animals and penalise those who deal in them.
(ix) The contiguous cull was controversial because it involved the slaughter of millions of apparently healthy animals. The Department should examine how the contiguous cull was implemented in 2001 and assess its impact and effectiveness, to inform decisions as to whether, and how, a contiguous cull should be used in the event of any future outbreak.
(x) Seven mass burial pits were constructed at significant expense during the crisis to meet a worst case prediction of the number of animals that might need to be slaughtered. They were used to only one-third of their capacity and their long-term future has yet to be decided. The Department needs to formulate plans for the future of each site, and consult local authorities and residents on its proposals. Continued close monitoring and inspection of the sites in particular is essential.
On controlling the costs of the outbreak
(xi) The Department is currently engaged in discussions with the livestock and insurance industries about alternative ways of reimbursing farmers for the costs of having their animals slaughtered. Rather than continue to make direct compensation payments, the Department is considering a subsidised insurance scheme or a joint industry-Government levy scheme. We are glad that these options are being considered since they offer the prospect of substantially reducing the taxpayer's exposure. The Department should report its conclusions to Parliament.
(xii) The Livestock Welfare Disposal Scheme cost over £200 million in payments to farmers and nearly as much again to run, but failed in its purpose of alleviating animal suffering. The eligibility criteria were difficult to monitor and enforce, and generous payment rates led to the scheme being overwhelmed. Future welfare schemes should have clear objectives and eligibility criteria which can be readily checked. Payments to farmers should be set at a level that encourages applications to be submitted only in respect of genuine welfare cases.
(xiii) The Department has been withholding payment of £90 million from companies in respect of invoices where it has so far been unable to verify that the work claimed for has actually been carried out. The Department is checking outstanding invoices and seeking supporting documentation. It should seek recovery in those cases where it believes it has been overcharged.
(xiv) Poor financial controls were exercised by the Department over cleansing and disinfection work, which cost some £300 million in total. The Department had few standards or criteria on how cleansing and disinfection should be carried out, and this lack of guidance led to large variations between regions and significant differences in the costs incurred per farm. Improved guidance should be developed on the standards of cleansing and disinfection to be adopted in the event of any future outbreak.
(xv) The Department chose to pay for the cleansing as well as the disinfection of farms because it wanted to be sure that the disease would not re-emerge. The Dutch government did not pay for the cleansing of farms and therefore incurred significantly lower costs on this work than the United Kingdom. The Department should examine the Dutch experience to assess the risks and benefits of their approach. The Department should also examine whether in any future outbreak the cost of cleansing and disinfecting could be met by the proposed insurance or levy scheme that is under consideration.
CONTINGENCY PLANNING FOR A POSSIBLE OUTBREAK OF FOOT AND MOUTH DISEASE
- The Department had prepared contingency plans for foot and mouth disease which met European Union requirements. The plans comprised a national contingency plan for Great Britain; local contingency plans; and standing field instructions for veterinary and other staff. The plans were approved by the European Commission in 1993 and had been updated in various ways since then. In the event, contingency plans worked in those areas where there were relatively few cases. But in the worst hit areas, the resources needed to deal with the disease rapidly went beyond what had been envisaged in contingency plans. The Department acknowledged that the plans had proved inadequate for the situation it faced, as the plans of other countries would have done if they had faced the same situation.
Scenario planning and wider impacts
- In line with European Commission guidance, the Department's plans were based on the assumption that there would not be more than ten infected premises at any one time. The Department had not considered any other scenarios because it felt that the risks of foot and mouth disease were low. This was a serious misjudgement. In the event at least 57 premises were infected before the outbreak was discovered and 2,000 premises were infected in total.
- Little prior consideration was given to the impact that a large-scale epidemic might have on non-farming businesses. The outbreak had a severe impact on the rural economy, with many small businesses that depend on countryside visitors being badly affected. The closure of rights of way, alongside images of the burning and burying of animal carcasses, was widely perceived by the public at home and abroad as meaning that the countryside was closed. The Department acknowledged that, in the light of the experience of the 2001 outbreak, a blanket closure of footpaths in the event of a future outbreak was unlikely.
Consultation with stakeholders
The rest of the Reporthttp://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmpubacc/487/48703.htm
- The Department had not consulted other key stakeholders about its contingency plans, such as government departments, local authorities and representatives of farmers and the veterinary profession, though stakeholders had been involved in a number of simulation exercises to test contingency plans, and a large number of local authorities had been involved in the development of local contingency plans. During the outbreak of classical swine fever in 2000 the Department had held regular meetings with stakeholders. The Department accepted that it needed to have a much more rigorous process of engagement with stakeholders in the preparation and testing of contingency plans.