The politicians have gone on holiday, and the silly
season is here again. If you are bored with the nonsense in the papers,
why not try some of the reports on the 2001 FMD epidemic? The Royal
Society of London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Lessons Learned
Enquiry have all published their findings recently. They make fascinating
Dr Iain Anderson, chairman of the Lessons Learned
Enquiry, sets the tone of his report by saying that "the nation will not be best
served by seeking to blame individuals."
Up to a point, Lord Copper. What this means is
that, though government bungling turned a serious matter into an unprecedented
catastrophe, nobody is expected to take responsibility. What strange times
we live in. If a hard-pressed teacher smacks a child, or an exhausted
nurse makes a mistake, he or she is mercilessly pilloried and their career
ruined. But when the politicians and their advisers get things wrong to
the tune of £10 billion and 70 suicides, they duck all
At the height of the epidemic Mr Blair
announced that he was taking personal charge of the battle against FMD - and in
a recent television broadcast he emphasised that, "If you're Prime Minister, then
the buck stops with you." I wonder if our Tony knows the old saying
"There's no such thing as a bad regiment, only bad officers"?
So what did they do, these bad officers? For
a start they told lies - lots of lies. The first casualties of the
disaster were truth and its twin, trust. Over and over again the Minister
of Agriculture, Nick Brown and the Chief Vet, Jim Scudamore, said that the
outbreak was under control when any fool could see that the virus was spreading
Dr Anderson gives one shocking example. On
MArch 11th, Brown told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme that he
was "absolutely certain" that the disease was under control. What this
remark did, of course, was to create a cynical and dishonest atmosphere, and to
destroy what little trust still existed between the government and the whole
rural community - not just farmers.
But, incredibly, Dr Anderson comments that "It is
understandable that the Minister should have sought to reassure the public...
" This remark shows that Dr Anderson inhabits the same twilight world as
our politicians. Nothing is clear, nothing is definite,and there is no
such thing as right or wrong. We are in the gloomy swamp of moral
relativism, Matthew Arnold's "Darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by
Dr Anderson goes on to say, even more absurdly,
that "The Minister's comments also sent a message to Government as a whole that
the outbreak was being comprehensively managed by MAFF." Surely our canny
Prime Minister is not taken in by his own cabinet ministers? Anderson
stresses the lack of formal "trigger points" to flag up the moment at which a
local problem becomes national, and recommends a new horizon-scanning procedure
to solve this problem. In fact, all that is needed is common sense.
Most people scan the horizon perfectly well by watching Channel Four News,
reading the papers or talking to people on the ground.
So why didn't the Government listen to th MPs whose
constituencies were suffering so terribly? This is one of the many
questions that Anderson fails to answer. David Maclean, MP for Penrith and
the Border, begged the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency for
Cumbria for weeks before the Army was eventually called in and COBR
opened. But no-one in London listened.
Dr Anderson makes mistakes of his own. I was,
for instance, surprised to read that "the dealer took them (the sheep) to
Longtown Market in Hexham" when every schoolboy knows that Longtown and Hexham
are towns 30 miles apart and in separately counties. Howlers like this do
nothing to inspire confidence.
One of our farms was culled in early April as a
result of what was then called a "clinical diagnosis", which sounds convincing,
but in fact just means the vet's best guess. Cases like this were called
"slaughter on suspicion", most ;likely to make the figures look better in the
run up to the election. Our vet wanted a second opinion, but this was
refused by MAFF HQ at Page Street in London, where decisions were being
taken. Without waiting for the diagnosis to be confirmed by tests, MAFF
began to slaughter our neighbours' healthy animals. The tests came back
negative: the whole thing was a terrible mistake.
But our farm was now classified as "Infected
Premises" and there was no way of removing that label. Once an IP, always
an IP. It meant, for instance, that the whole place was subject to an
incredibly expensive and absolutely pointless, cleansing and disinfecting
programme. Then an official rang me to say that we would not be allowed to
restock for four months. A whole summer's grass would be wasted. I am not
normally a foul-mouthed person, but at that point I let fly with a spot of
verbal abuse, as swearing is now called.
Even as I did so, I felt sorry for the official at
the other end of the line. He had not chosen the unscientific, impractical
and barbaric policy that he had to enforce.
So who was responsible for the debacle? Dr
Anderson's report poses more questions than answers. He suggests a few
unconvincing explanations for the month-long delay in calling in the Army and
opening COBR, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room which is used to manage civil
emergencies. I suggest that he asks the Parliamentary Recording Unit (tel.
020 7219 5511) for the video of the Public Accounts Committee held on 3 July
2002. There he will see brain Bender, Permanent Secretary at MAFF's
successor DEFRA, say that the delay was due to indecision at the highest levels
Most important of all, who was responsible for the
extraordinary experiment of killing healthy animals on farms which were either
contiguous to, or within 3 km of, every IP? This unscientific, unworkable
policy was adopted by the government in preference to the use of
vaccination. It made British politicians and scientists the laughing stock
of the world.
None of these reports provides a satisfactory
explanation. Dr Anderson makes an extraordinary statement in his
chapter on the pre-emptive slaughter. He says that in Scotland,
"informally at first, and, as far as we have been able to discover, without
any scientific evidence, plans were rapidly worked out for a 3 km
pre-emptive sheep cull." The idea apparently came from the Scottish Executive
and NFU Scotland, who worked together very closely. Why did Anderson not
have access to records of the discussions which led to this bizarre
policy? The boffins who produced the admirably clear report of the Royal
Society of Edinburgh say that the pre-emptive 3 km cull of sheep was undertaken
on the advice of the State Veterinary Service. Who is right?
Wherever the idea came from, it was announced on
15th March (though not implemented immediately). Meanwhile, panic was
rising. On March 21, Professor Roy Anderson, Head of Infectious Disease
Epidemiology at Imperial College, told the BBC's Newsnight that the
disease was out of control. Dr Anderson says that he was "unable to find a
clear account of decision making at around that time...Brian Bender told us that
there was a great deal of confusion." After 26 March the Chief
Scientist, Professor David King, took the lead and, following advice from
Professor Anderson's group of modellers, none of whom had any previous
experience of FMD, persuaded the government to cull all animals on contiguous
premises. "The FMD experts and the pro-vaccination lobby had been
sidelined, though the debate went on until Easter.
Dr Anderson has failed to find out what happened at
this crucial stage. He says that "some of the most important (decisions)
taken during the outbreak were recorded in the most perfunctory way and
sometimes not at all...This has made the task of conducting an audit extremely
These statements are extraordinary. Important
meetings must have been minuted and decisions recorded. There are three
possible explanations for Dr Andserson's failure to find the records.
Perhaps the relevant documents were so embarrassing to the government that they
were destroyed. Assuming that they still exist, Dr Anderson has either seen
them, but, due to a psychological block, forgotten what they said, or the
authorities have deliberately concealed the papers. If the government is
serious in its espousal of "open-ness" and "transparency" it must tell the
I attended the meeting held by Dr Anderson in
Lockerbie. He came across as a decent and open-minded man who was
seriously trying to get at the truth. His report is a feeble whitewash
and a bitter disappointment. So much is left out. Occasional
quotes from farmers, vets and other front-line troops hint at the story that
remains to be told. A Devon G.P., for instance, is quoted as saying "It is
a tragedy that an animal illness has been translated to one that had a severe
impact on the mental health of our patients" But this important point is not
explained or put in context.
It has been well said that the Anderson Report
reads like a court case in which only the defence lawyers have been heard.
The saddest long-term result of the 2001 FMD disaster is the destruction of
trust. It will not be restored until the Government comes clean about what
happened and why. Only then will the lessons be well and truly
8th August 2002