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MPs maul ministry over foot and mouth
By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent
(Filed: 14/03/2003)

The Government's handling of the foot and mouth epidemic was branded "inexcusable" by the chairman of a committee of MPs whose report published today delivers the final verdict on the £8 billion crisis of 2001.

Edward Leigh, chairman of the public accounts committee, said that while he recognised the Government faced a "crisis situation and decisions had to be taken immediately", ministers and officials made serious mistakes.

"Some of the disease's handling remain inexcusable, such as the absence of a vaccination policy and the failure to bring in the military at an earlier stage," he said.

The report said the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) was guilty of a "serious misjudgment" in assuming that the risks of an outbreak were low, and consequently failing to plan for the scale of problems it faced.

It said that many of the Government's difficulties in handling the epidemic "reflect a narrow outlook and lack of contextual awareness".

Mr Leigh called for the Government's plans on vaccination to "be clear, and set out the circumstances and factors that would determine when vaccination would be adopted".

MPs noted that Maff failed to act sufficiently on a report that pointed out the Government's unpreparedness.

It said Maff, headed at the time by Nick Brown, now minister for work, had contingency plans that focused only on agriculture.

But the outbreak caused most damage to the tourist industry, which incurred £5 billion of losses, while agriculture, the food chain and supporting services suffered net losses of £600 million after compensation.

The Government was too slow to impose a national movement ban on livestock and should not have allowed the blanket closure of footpaths for a lengthy period, the report said.

It should not have disposed of carcasses on mass funeral pyres and it lacked a clear-cut policy on whether and when vaccination should be used.

One of the main criticisms was that the Government was too slow to call on the Armed Forces for assistance.

The committee's most basic criticism related to contingency planning. In line with EU guidance, Government plans were based on an assumption that there would be no more than 10 infected premises at any one time, the report noted. It continued: "The department had not considered any other scenarios. This was a serious misjudgment. At least 57 premises were infected before the outbreak was discovered and 2,000 premises were infected in total."

The contingency plan failed to account for the possibility that farmers might not meet their obligation to report the disease, nor that it might be spread through sheep.

The MPs also noted that the Government's systems for paying compensation to farmers whose animals were destroyed had inadequate cost controls.

Similarly, the report said, the department found itself in a "weak negotiating position" and had to pay a premium for quick cleansing of farms and construction of disposal sites.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) - Maff's replacement - has withheld £90 million from companies who have failed to verify that work claimed for has been carried out.

The report estimated the cost of the outbreak to the public sector at more than £3 billion, with the private sector suffering losses of more than £5 billion.

A Defra spokesman said: "We accept that mistakes were made and there are areas in which improvements could be made."

Lessons learned during the crisis had "wider lessons for future contingency planning for all departments. The Government has established the Civil Contingencies Secretariat to co-ordinate UK contingency planning".

The spokesman said: "Defra accepts the need for greater flexibility in contingency planning and closer involvement of stakeholders in those plans; the need for speed in scaling up operations; better communications; and handling the vast scale of operations that were required in some areas."