WEDNESDAY AUGUST 01 2001

You must vaccinate or be damned, Mr Gill

SIMON JENKINS

On April 19, the Government Chief Scientist, Professor David King, pronounced foot-and-mouth disease "fully under control". Supported by the Chief Vet, Jim Scudamore, these professional angels of death had already killed some 1.8 million mostly healthy animals. Their "four computer models" showed that infection would be down to one or two a day within a month. The kings of cull were triumphant.

Some commentators asked whether a public sector cost of £1 billion for the policy had been justified. FMD had nothing to do with human health or animal mortality. The slaughter was entirely to guard the livestock export industry. Indeed, since the epidemic was not yet over, it was reasonable to ask if there were any cost the Government would consider unjustified, such as twice the slaughter and twice the cost. Such talk was dismissed as hysterical scaremongering.

 

This week the slaughter toll reached 3.6 million. Almost all these animals were healthy and few if any were going to die with proper care. The revenue cost of killing them has now broken through the £2.5 billion barrier, or one pence on everyone's basic rate of tax. The cost to the wider economy was estimated by the Institute of Directors in April at £10 billion, rising to £20 billion "if the epidemic drags on to July". It is now August. The possibility that FMD might prove endemic among free-range hill flocks has also come true. Testing of Mid-Welsh hefted flocks could lead to the slaughter of millions. These are staggering figures. The policy is clearly beyond all concern for cost or sanity. It is like a hopeless military campaign, sustained only by esprit de corps at staff headquarters.

 

The FMD outbreak is the defining event of "Blairism". Nineteenth-century vets attributed the disease to "the poisonous exudation of deleterious weeds", to Galen's "miasma". This well describes the Government's response, a miasma of policy inertia, susceptibility to producer interest and media panic. At the start, ministers ran with the 1967 policy. They failed to see that their veterinary advisers were in hock to the livestock lobby of the National Farmers' Union. They put Tony Blair in a decontamination suit to show him "tough and concerned" and it flashed round the world devastating foreign tourism. A calf called Phoenix was saved by Alastair Campbell as a favour to The Mirror. When in April ring vaccination became briefly official policy, the NFU's Ben Gill was allowed to kill it. Vacillation, weakness and an obsession with image has been everything.

 

This week the Welsh rural economy around Brecon is in disarray. "Countryside gripped by terror" was yesterday's headline in the Western Mail. The A470 "corridor of death" is again ferrying truckloads of infected carcasses to the South Powys pits. Wales's Rural Affairs Minister, Carwyn Jones, hilariously tried to tell the local tourist industry that slaughter-not-vaccination was "in the interests of tourism". The same nonsense is spun in the Yorkshire Dales and the Vale of York round Thirsk. Foot-and-mouth is not over, not even "under control".

 

Mr Blair and his ministers have fled to the Americas while the slaughter continues. There is no review of policy, no assessment of cost-benefit, no control of public spending. As with Public-Private Partnership on London's Underground or the Government's Balkans policy, Blairism stumbles into a wrong-headed policy with no idea how to stumble out of it. Leadership preoccupied with media response can react but cannot think. Ministers agree only that, whatever happens, there should never be a public inquiry into all this.

 

Let us ponder the contrasting Dutch experience. The Dutch farm lobby is no different from Britain's. Dutch vets, like British ones, regard their first duty as to farm profits, not to animal welfare. But when FMD came to The Netherlands in March, farmers were not overcompensated as in Britain and refused to kill healthy herds and flocks. Instead, only infected animals were killed. Farmers disinfected their own premises and adjacent herds and flocks were vaccinated. This policy of "ring vaccination" worked, dismissed out of hand by Mr Blair's "Emergency Unit". The last Dutch case of FMD was reported on April 22 and The Netherlands was declared FMD-free on June 25. It is now exporting meat. Whatever the Dutch did, they did right. Whatever Britain did was wrong. The Dutch had later to slaughter their vaccinated stock because of European Union rules, but did so reluctantly as there was no need. Vaccinated meat is perfectly safe to eat. The Dutch intend to propose, with EU official backing, that vaccination without slaughter becomes European policy at the November summit.

 

British ministers will then be in the ludicrous position of having to argue against a sensible policy from which Britain has most to gain. They will do so because, as ministers freely admit, Mr Gill of the NFU has been given a policy veto. This man is a public menace. In the history of British trade unionism, his NFU will stand alone in the cost it has imposed on the nation. The NFU's foot-and-mouth stance makes Arthur Scargill's coal strikes seem like fleabites.

 

The only hope is to get back to basics. This whole affair has been about money. The iron law of Catch-22 holds that no one can fail to make money from government. The sums paid in compensation and grants to farmers are way ahead of what farmers would this year have received in subsidy. One farmer was given £4.2 million and many are "compensation millionaires", their identity protected by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to save ministerial embarrassment. I am mystified why anyone receiving so much public money should enjoy government secrecy.

 

This money must be turned to proper account. Last April the press reported that some farmers were making fraudulent claims for compensation, including some who were seeking to cross-infect flocks. The Agriculture Ministry and the Treasury did nothing about these rumours. Only when Mr Blair hit the roof last month did Defra  MAFF in a new dress  feel it had to take action. It discovered that cleansing a farm in England, under central government control, was costing £104,000 a farm. Under local government in Scotland it cost £30,000. In The Netherlands it cost just £570. Small wonder the Treasury hates local government: it shows up the true cost of central control. The public has now spent over £1 million per infected farm and still not beaten FMD. Mr Blair is a slow learner at economics. He was surprised to find that if he offered £1,100 for a cow worth £600 at market, and £90 for a ewe worth £30, farmers would take up his offer. If he offered to pay the farmer £1,000 a month to drive his own tractor cleaning his own farm, he would leap at it. Any housewife would do the same. Some unscrupulous farmers would go further. They would infect their flocks and join in the bonanza. Faced with such stupid government, FMD could spread like wildfire. It did.

 

After three months of refusing to believe that farming is a business, Mr Blair has had enough. Before leaving for the FMD-endemic shores of South America he produced a familiar Blair initiative. He promised an army of new officials to go round trying to work out what every cullable animal is really "worth" before killing it. Extra auditors will examine invoices, dockets, pay stubs and reinforce existing red tape. By the autumn the countryside should have a new ancillary FMD workforce, over and above farmers, vets and contractors. Historical parallels for thus sanitising the massacre of innocents are too grim to mention.

 

Perhaps Mr Blair may succeed in reversing the NFU's pro-slaughter incentives and induce farmers to switch to demanding vaccination. If so, Mr Blair must admit an appalling mistake. Even then I do not see why the taxpayer should pay the estimated &£163;200 million for vaccination. The disease remains a cost to farmers, not taxpayers. But since Mr Gill regards his pocket and the nation's as synonymous and &£163;200 million is cheap at the price, the nation has an interest. So give Mr Gill the cash. Tell him and his friends to vaccinate or be damned. He has destroyed public confidence in his industry. The madness has gone on long enough.

 

simon.jenkins@thetimes.co.uk