Press and Journal ( A Scottish newspaper) April 26


09:00 - 26 April 2002
The deep cuts in staffing at the State Veterinary Service were responsible for some of the difficulties in bringing the UK's foot and mouth epidemic under control last year, a European Parliament committee said yesterday.

The 22-strong special committee on foot and mouth, who visited the disease hotspots in Cumbria, Northumberland and Dumfries and Galloway last week, also praised Scottish officials for devolving control to help speed up eradication.

They, however, criticised the policy in England where the disease "galloped out of control".

The MEPs said it had quickly become clear during their visit that a key factor in the UK's difficulties in bringing the epidemic under control was the depletion of the State Veterinary Service. The number of full-time Government vets had over the last 21 years fallen from 564 to 235.

The committee is to compare the UK figures with the situation elsewhere in Europe.

The committee added: "Another clear lesson from the UK's experience was that the disease can be handled much more effectively at local and regional level than from central government.

"The delegates were struck by the contrast between the situation in Cumbria and Northumberland, where the disease was handled remotely from London and galloped out of control, and the experience across the border in Scotland, where responsibility was devolved to Dumfries and Galloway Council, which rapidly set up an effective emergency operation that involved the local community and successfully brought the disease under control."

The committee also said that serious consideration must be given to a Europe-wide policy on using vaccination to control the disease in any future outbreak.

Wolfgang Kreissl-Dorfler, the German Socialist Group MEP who has been tasked with drawing up the committee's recommendations, promised farmers, vets, businesspeople and Government officials that vaccination, and the related issue of export rules, would be examined in his report.

It is expected Mr Kreissl-Dorfler's report will also call for an international strategy on combating foot and mouth.

There were numerous calls during the committee's UK visit for tougher European border controls to prevent contaminated products from entering the union and bringing in infection.

The committee, which is made up of MEPs representing all the main political groups, also said there had been considerable confusion on the ground in the UK about the provisions of EU legislation on vaccination and culling and its interpretation.

During their visit last week, the MEPs visited farms near Carlisle and Hexham, as well as the Longtown and Hexham marts at the centre of the epidemic, and visited Great Orton Airfield, where nearly half a million animals are buried. They heard harrowing first-hand accounts of the devastation wrought by the epidemic.

The delegation also met local businesspeople whose livelihoods had been wiped out as a result of the epidemic and who had received little or no support. Huge damage was done to the tourism industry - which accounts for 25% of jobs in Cumbria - and it will take years to recover.

Committee chairman Encarnacion Redondo Jiminez, of Spain, said the depth of human misery and emotional suffering caused by the epidemic was an essential aspect of the crisis and would not overlooked in the committee's conclusions.

The committee is expected later this year to make various recommendations to the European Commission on how to tackle foot and mouth, and other animal diseases, in the future.