DISASTER SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN A SURPRISE
Western Morning News

When Margaret Beckett responded to the Lessons Learned inquiry, she grudgingly accepted that, with hindsight, mistakes were made.
JASON GROVES

Hindsight seemed to be the easiest word for Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett when she gave the Government's response to the "Lessons Learned" inquiry into last year's foot and mouth crisis. In a statement notable for its lack of the word sorry, she trotted out the word hindsight five times to excuse the Government's handling of the disaster.HINDSIGHT seemed to be the easiest word for Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett when she gave the Government's response to the "Lessons Learned" inquiry into last year's foot and mouth crisis. In a statement notable for its lack of the word sorry, she trotted out the word hindsight five times to excuse the Government's handling of the disaster.

She grudgingly admitted that mistakes were made, but insisted that these could only have been detected in hindsight. "The action taken," Mrs Beckett said, "was entirely consistent with the information and advice then available."

That charge was rejected the next day by inquiry chairman Dr Iain Anderson, who insisted he had taken "meticulous" care to avoid making criticisms with the benefit of hindsight. Dr Anderson had good reason to be annoyed, because from the evidence submitted to him during the six-month inquiry process it is quite clear that what was needed to avoid the disaster was not hindsight, but the simple removal of the department's bureaucratic blinkers.

It is not just that people could have predicted the crisis that would ensue if a serious outbreak of foot and mouth occurred; they actually did.

To make matters worse, the starkest of these warnings came from the Government's own vets in a startling internal report produced in 1999.

The Drummond Report, named after senior Government vet Richard Drummond, who wrote it, predicts virtually every disaster that befell the Government in the early weeks of last year's crisis, from the untested nature of contingency plans and the lack of vets, to the problems of disposal and vaccination. To read the report, which is in the public domain for the first time, and realise that it was not implemented because of lack of resources and other priorities, is enough to make one gasp.

On carcass disposal, for example, the report notes that a combination of "growing public awareness" of environmental concerns, and increasingly tight European environmental laws, meant that an urgent re-examination of disposal methods is needed.

"Either way," it said, "there is little time to enter a debate on the merits of one method against another when disease has broken out and carcasses on the infected premises are starting to decompose. We need to clear our lines with all those who have an interest in this subject well in advance of an outbreak."

In the event, of course, no such arrangements were made with the Environment Agency and others, with the result that huge piles of putrefying corpses were littering the countryside within weeks.

On vaccination the report concluded that clear plans were needed in advance, not least because the meagre resources of the State Veterinary Service were likely to be "overwhelmed" quickly. Drummond reported "concern" that there was no provision within contingency plans for using ring vaccination in a foot and mouth outbreak.

In an ominous warning he concluded: "The working group's concern relates to the speed at which foot and mouth might spread and that State Veterinary resources could quickly become overwhelmed, particularly if a number of secondary outbreaks occurred in separate locations at the same time. The group felt there was much to be said for agreeing in advance the outline criteria for applying to use vaccine."

In the event, there were numerous secondary outbreaks and veterinary resources were overwhelmed within days. No agreement had been reached on when vaccination should be used and, in the heat of the crisis, it proved impossible to persuade the farming and food industries that it should be.

Drummond notes that contingency planning should be "at the heart of preparedness" in fighting diseases like foot and mouth.

The report noted that in Australia "contingency planning is given a high priority" but that "no such structured approach exists in Great Britain". Contingency planning, it continued, "needs to embrace more than just producing a paper-based document containing outline instructions".

The report - anticipating the role livestock markets would play in the spread of the disease - also noted that "a thorough review needs to be carried out of the problems posed for contingency planners arising from the gathering of animals at markets, shows and on large livestock units".

It concluded that: "Anecdotal evidence suggest that plans in some offices have not been updated for years, and that it has been impossible to engage in any recent staff training and the holding of exercises to any great effect."

In the event, the Government's so-called contingency plan proved little more than a paper-based exercise designed to satisfy the European Commission. Little practice had been undertaken and few outside the veterinary profession were even aware of its existence.

Implementing the Drummond Report would not have prevented a major crisis last year, but it would have left the country far better prepared to cope with it.

It would be easy to blame Chief Vet Jim Scudamore for the failure to implement the recommendations of the report. He was certainly aware of its findings and their importance.

But it would be unfair to heap all of the blame on Dr Scudamore, who was trying to run an organisation that had suffered from years of Government neglect. The Drummond Report noted "numerous examples of problems in recruiting and retaining staff" within the State Veterinary Service - usually because of poor pay and promotion prospects. This year it has been subjected to a further 10 per cent budget squeeze.

What is needed is not hindsight (the problems were well known to many long before last year's crisis), but leadership, resources and planning. Hindsight or no, it is to be hoped Mrs Beckett has got the message.
Aug 7 02