TRANSCRIPT OF "FILE ON 4" ~ CURRENT AFFAIRS GROUP ~ TRANSMISSION: Tuesday 25th June 2002 2000 - 2040

REPEAT: Sunday 30th June 2002 1700 - 1740

 

REPORTER: Jenny Cuffe ~PRODUCER: Sarah Lewthwaite ~EDITOR: David Ross ~PROGRAMME NUMBER: 02VY3026LHO

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

"FILE ON 4"

Transmission: Tuesday 25th June 2002 ~ Repeat: Sunday 30th June 2002

CUFFE: Britain has just received the official bill for last year’s Foot and Mouth epidemic, a total of £8 billion. A report last week by the National Audit Office criticises the government for allowing costs to spiral out of control, and for ignoring warnings that should have made it better prepared to stamp out the disease. The government has called it the biggest epidemic the world has ever known, but many believe it needn’t have been so bad.

CRISPIN: Sadly, very sadly, one could say that it was not the biggest epidemic in the world, but we turned what was a tragedy into an unmitigated disaster.

CUFFE: With the government now facing legal action over its handling of the disease, File on 4 looks at the evidence against it. Were decisions made in the first few weeks that, far from bringing the disease under control, helped it to spread?

SIGNATURE TUNE

ACTUALITY OF DEVON MEETING

MEP (Gordon Adam): It’s not a viable option in the UK circumstances [audience heckling]. I have to tell you, I have to tell you that on the best evidence that we have had as a committee so far, without the contiguous cull the disease would not have been brought under control in the time in which it happened. (heckling).

CUFFE: A Labour MEP gets shouted down by angry farmers in Devon. After last week’s National Audit Office report, it’s now the European Parliament’s turn to hear evidence about the Foot and Mouth epidemic. The row over the government’s handling of the disease rumbles on. Two more national inquiries will report over the summer, and thousands of rural businesses are preparing to take legal action, demanding compensation.

ACTUALITY AT EQUESTRIAN CENTRE

THOMAS: Come on then, walk on, walk on, walk on. Good boy.

CUFFE: On a hillside near Welshpool, David Thomas runs an equestrian centre. He’s a signatory to a class action – a battle to prove that government negligence contributed to the private sector’s loss of £5 billion.

THOMAS: We couldn’t do any trekking out in the countryside, we lost a lot of money with that, and then more in the autumn, we hire a lot of horses out for hunting. We had three months there where we lost all our income there. So all told we virtually lost 50% of the business.

CUFFE: And how much are you hoping to gain from your court case?

THOMAS: We’ve got two thousand businesses involved at the moment - every kind of business you can think of involved with the countryside. We’ve got the saddlers who make the saddles and the tack for the horses, people we buy our rosettes off – I mean they had absolutely no business at all. The average loss between the two thousand businesses is around £30,000 to £35,000 per business. I believe there’s one chain of retail restaurants in London that are out £3 million because no Americans came to London for months and months on end. It’s going to be huge.

CUFFE: This is an unfortunate outbreak, but how then can you blame the government?

THOMAS: We blame the government unquestionably in the initial part of the outbreak they didn’t take the proper decisions, and that is a key to why we had a huge spread of an outbreak over the whole country.

CUFFE: The outbreak of Foot and Mouth last February caught the government unawares. But Sheila Crispin of Bristol University’s veterinary department thinks there were plenty of signs that this particular strain of the virus was heading our way.

CRISPIN: We did know that there was every possibility that Sero Type O would get into Europe because we’d been warned about that, I think in the early 90s. In terms of closeness, interestingly it does look as if this actually came from Asia, from India, so you could argue that it wasn’t particularly close, but of course with modern transport it’s very easy for viruses to leap huge geographical boundaries. The Northumberland Report, which was put together after the 67/68 outbreak, warned that our country would be at risk of epidemics every twenty years or so if we didn’t take much more stringent precautions to keep the virus out of the country.

CUFFE: For the past five years, Foot and Mouth had been circling Europe, its progress monitored by the Animal Health Laboratory in Pirbright, Surrey, which advises the government on Foot and Mouth. They passed the information to the European Commission for the Control of Foot and Mouth, and eleven months before the outbreak in Britain, the Commission issued a warning.

READER IN STUDIO: The Commission noted the deteriorating situation in Asia and recommends that all member countries should learn from the recent experiences of Japan and the Republic of Korea and of Iran and Turkey, and strengthen and heighten their preparedness and awareness of the risk of Foot and Mouth Disease.

CUFFE: Despite these warnings, the National Audit Office found the government ill-prepared for anything on the scale of last year’s outbreak. Although it had a contingency plan, this wasn’t widely available. It wasn’t on the Ministry of Agriculture’s website at the start of the epidemic, and very few people have seen it. One man who has, though, is Richard Eales, a director of the National Audit Office. He says it allowed for only the most modest outbreak, and didn’t take other possibilities into account.

EALES: The Department had not considered any other scenarios, for instance a worst case scenario. Because they hadn’t considered other scenarios, they’d not considered the wider impact that an outbreak might have on other industries – for instance, the tourism industry in rural areas was devastated by this outbreak and that had not been thought through in contingency plans.

CUFFE: How did the contingency plan compare with the reality of what was to happen?

EALES: The Department’s plans were based on only ten farms being infected at any one time, but 57 farms were infected before the Department knew about the disease being in the country, and over the next three days, before there was a national movement ban, the number of infected farms had doubled, so in effect there were ten times as many as in the contingency plan.

CUFFE: The Junior Agriculture Minister at the time was Elliot Morley. Unlike his boss, Nick Brown, he still holds the post. He denies that the contingency plan was inadequate.

MORLEY: The scale of the outbreak was unprecedented and really there probably wasn’t any contingency plan that could have prepared for something on this scale and spread.

CUFFE: But your contingency plan only allowed for the most modest scale and the National Audit Office says that you should have looked at the worst case scenario as well.

MORLEY: Well all scenarios are looked at, but of course there are lessons to be learnt from this and we accept that …

CUFFE: But Mr Morley, all scenarios weren’t looked at. You only looked in your contingency plan at the most modest scenario.

MORLEY: Because the contingency plan is designed to be able to ramp up, you see, so the number of cases nationwide is really irrelevant to this. Now of course, having experienced this dreadful outbreak, there are lessons for us to learn and we don’t dispute that, and that’s why we must build this in into future contingency planning, and of course we’ll do that. But of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

CUFFE: Once the first case of Foot and Mouth was confirmed, at an abattoir in Essex, the government had to decide whether to impose a national ban on the movement of livestock and when. It blundered.

ACTUALITY AT MARKET

CUFFE: The Thursday livestock market at Longtown in Cumbria is now back in business, and today about 4,000 sheep will go under the hammer – that’s a fraction of the number sold here on February 22nd last year, two days after the first case of Foot and Mouth. By this time the European Commission had banned exports of livestock from the UK, but the government was hesitating. The market’s chairman, Tucker Armstrong, says there was a mad rush to get animals sold.

ARMSTRONG: By stopping the export market that 48 hours earlier, all stock in the pipeline for the export market, that market had come to a halt. So all that stock, it’s got to find other destinations to be absorbed on the home market.

CUFFE: Did you receive any advice from the Ministry about whether to go ahead with the market on the 22nd?

ARMSTRONG: No. We definitely had no recommendation from MAFF that we cancel the sale. Had we been advised not to hold it, the sale would have been cancelled, we would have rung all the people that we expected were bringing stocks that day, we would have rung them and told them to hold it on the farm.

CUFFE: And in retrospect do you think you should have received instructions?

ARMSTRONG: History says yes, we should have received instructions.

CUFFE: The day after Longtown Market, on the 23rd, the disease was traced back from the Essex abattoir to a pig unit at Heddon on the Wall in Northumberland. Animals from Northumberland had passed through Longtown in Cumbria.

OWEN: I rang my local MAFF office and said, ‘You want to stop this now, you’ll have this bloody thing all over the country,’ and they left it till the Friday. Of course it was too late, wasn’t it?

CUFFE: David Owen runs Farmers Ferry, transporting livestock to Europe. For the sheep trade this was the busiest time of year.

OWEN: If they’d shut it on the Wednesday morning or the Tuesday night when they heard it confirmed, if they’d stopped all stock movement there and then it would probably have never come out of Northumberland. They lost it in three days.

CUFFE: In its report, the National Audit Office criticises ministers for not acting sooner. Preventing the movement of infected animals, it says, is a vital element of disease control, since direct animal to animal contact is the quickest means of transmission. And one of the government’s own advisors during the epidemic, Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University, says it was a decision with far-reaching consequences.

WOOLHOUSE: In those three days there was widespread movement of livestock, particularly sheep, and that had a significant role to play in the dissemination of the disease. Our analysis suggests that those three days were responsible for at least half of the epidemic.

CUFFE: So you’re saying that the epidemic could have been half the size it was if there had been a movement ban right away?

WOOLHOUSE: That’s the best estimate, half the size that it was.

CUFFE: And how does that delay translate into costs?

WOOLHOUSE: Well, if you accept our estimate that it was responsible for 50% of the epidemic, that is obviously going to translate into billions of pounds.

CUFFE: The government admits that, with hindsight, its decision was a mistake. But that was only the first of many.

ACTUALITY AT MARKET

CUFFE: There’d been two sheep sales at Longtown in the eight days before the movement ban. From here, animals were transported hundreds of miles, as far as Anglesey and Devon, taking the disease with them. Having failed to cancel the market, the Ministry for Agriculture – MAFF – needed to trace those animals as quickly as possible.

Tucker Armstrong says they were given full details of every transaction, but nothing happened. It seems the information went missing.

ARMSTRONG: They came for that information on Monday the 26th. They came 9, 9.30 and they were away by 11 with all documentation for that crucial period.

CUFFE: So you were satisfied that all the animals that had been here would have been traced to farms right across the country?

ARMSTRONG: We couldn’t see that there was any difficulty. A month later there was a phone call from MAFF and they were given that information for a second time. We were under the impression that they’d lost it. In some cases farmers weren’t contacted for months.

CUFFE: The Ministry denies that it lost market records. But File on 4 has spoken to farmers who confirm that there was a long delay in contacting them. One man told us it was four months before he heard from MAFF, even though details of the sheep he had bought were among the documents handed over. And there was even a long delay contacting part time workers at the market, who had stock of their own in the neighbouring countryside.

ACTUALITY OF GEORGE WITH SHEEP

GEORGE: Come on, come on! Come on in. Come on, come on.

CUFFE: George Brough only replaced his flock recently, but already they come when he calls. Shaking a bag of feed helps. George is a dairy man first and foremost, and as well as his part time job at Longtown Market, he milked cows at a neighbouring farm. It was the first farm in the area to come down with Foot and Mouth.

BROUGH: I had milked on the Tuesday night at Mr Fisher’s. I was to go in on the Wednesday night, but I did hear on the grapevine that the police were standing at his lane end, so I rung up. They said, ‘Don’t come down here, George, we have Foot and Mouth.’ On the Thursday morning I rung them up, the MAFF at Carlisle, and told them I’d a lame ewe and one not very well. The vet came out, he looked in the lambing shed and he said, ‘Oh, they’re all right.’ He went on the phone to London, reported to them what he had found. When we went back into the shed, I went to a pen where there was three ewes and nine lambs, and there was one lamb, two days old, lying dead.

CUFFE: Although George Brough had been in contact with an infected herd – so the fact that a lamb dropped dead should have set alarm bells ringing – he says the Ministry vet didn’t seem that concerned. He left, saying he’d be back in two days’ time. Within 24 hours two more sheep were lame, and Mr Brough called MAFF again. The vet they sent along this time took blood samples. On Monday, more lambs were dead, and at this stage the Ministry agreed not to wait for test results, but to send in the valuers and put the rest down. Several more days passed before the sheep were finally incinerated.

BROUGH: It took them seven days before they really confirmed that it was Foot and Mouth, even though it was obvious that working at Longtown Mart, working at Fishers, a lamb dropping dead while their vet is almost in front of him, and they still didn’t take the signs that it was Foot and Mouth. I mean, the signs were obvious. Them sheep had been breathing Foot and Mouth all over.

CUFFE: On the day of the first Foot and Mouth case in Cumbria, Alan Richardson, a vet who’d recently retired, volunteered for duty at MAFF’s headquarters in Carlisle. He recorded his experiences in a diary.

RICHARDSON: Arrived at the office 28th February. No protective clothing or buckets. There were no thermometers available, but lorry-loads of computers. Chaotic forms, some dating from World War II. Waited six hours for a job.

CUFFE: Alan Richardson’s long career included a period in the State Veterinary Service. He was working in Cheshire in 1967 at the centre of the last Foot and Mouth epidemic, so he had a clear idea what needed to be done. To his dismay, he found chaos and confusion.

RICHARDSON: Typically what would be happening in early March is the farmer would have his sick cattle, he might not be able to get anybody to answer the phone, because the lines would be jammed and engaged. He may not get through for one, two or more days, in which case more animals were becoming sick and, significantly, these sick animals are pumping out virus by the milliards into the wind and into the surroundings. Then, when the vet arrived, if he stuck to the protocols he would take an awful long time looking at all the stock, but let’s assume that he cut the corners and went to the sick animals and made a diagnosis. Early on we even had cases where Head Office were wanting laboratory confirmation, even when the animals’ tongues were dropping off.

CUFFE: On March 1st, twenty four hours after the first confirmed case in Cumbria, Foot and Mouth appeared across the Scottish border, in Dumfries and Galloway. As an experienced slaughterman, John Robertson was immediately involved in killing infected animals as quickly as possible. But he was handicapped by the bureaucracy and the fact that everything was centrally controlled.

ROBERTSON: We were asking for resources such as pressure washers, disinfectant, electricity. We were working late on into the night with no lights. The first two days we were working with torches, and we had no water to wash our hands. There was large articulated lorries bringing coal, bits of wood, diggers, machinery, heavy tackle coming on and going off the farm and they weren’t disinfected. There was no disinfectant at all.

CUFFE: So when you needed something, what was the process for getting it?

ROBERTSON: If we needed something, if something broke down, we had to tell the vet that was in charge. They had to phone Dumfries office, the Dumfries office had to phone the Ayr office, the Ayr office sometimes made their mind up there and then. If they couldn’t make their mind, they phoned Edinburgh, which is the Head Office in Scotland. And then the Head Office had to phone MAFF in London to get final confirmation on whether to spend an extra £20 or £100. It sounded absolutely ridiculous to me. They should have spent the money at the start. If they’d spent, I don’t know, £10 million in the first fortnight getting the job under control, it would have saved billions of pounds.

CUFFE: Despite the difficulties, in Scotland Foot and Mouth was brought under control within ninety days. But neighbouring Cumbria suffered more cases than any other region – 891 in all – and for the longest period, right up to the end of September.

David McLean, MP for Penrith and the Borders, and a former Agriculture Minister in the Conservative Government, sent a questionnaire to local farmers about their dealings with MAFF.

MCLEAN: I had hundreds of farmers with carcasses rotting in their yard, and when the diggers came to pick them up, the carcasses fell into mush, jelly. One chap had four inches, four inches of fluid slush from his animals in his yard. They had to open the windows at the back of the house and he’d to push his wife and children out the back windows after a few days. It was the only way they could get out of the house and get fresh air. We had a ridiculous situation, MAFF killed some animals, decided to bury them, the Environment Department said, ‘No, no, you’ve dug that hole there, it’s not right, move it there,’ so they decided to move it somewhere else and burn them. And the Fire Officer said, ‘No, no, that’s a fire risk to those homes and the wood next door. Move them there.’ So the chap in the digger started digging another place, and the police came along and said, ‘No, no, the smoke will cover the road.’ So there’s dead stock for three days as they all figured out amongst themselves what to do, and eventually the animals were carted away for rendering.

CUFFE: One of the biggest problems at the start of the epidemic was the shortage of vets, the government’s chief resource in controlling disease. During the 90s, the State Veterinary Service had been run down and the number of vets halved. In February 2001 it was 7% below complement. Yet two years earlier, an internal document called the Drummond Report had issued a warning that now sounds prophetic.

READER IN STUDIO: With the speed at which Foot and Mouth disease might spread, the State Veterinary Service’s resources could quickly become overwhelmed, particularly if a number of separate outbreaks occurred in separate locations at the same time.

CUFFE: Drummond’s official report recommended that arrangements should be made to gear up resources in case of an outbreak and call in vets who’d retired. But vets who offered their services to MAFF in the first weeks of the epidemic were turned down if they were over 65. And the Chief Veterinary Officer soon told ministers he’d run out of staff. Meanwhile, as he records in his diary, Alan Richardson’s job was made more difficult by having to perform arduous and menial tasks.

RICHARDSON: Spent Sunday 11th disinfecting swollen carcasses in the biting rain with a contractor whose sprayer did not work properly. Had to hump 5-gallon drums of disinfectant all day and climb about on heaps of carcasses and over slippery walls. Gate fell on my head, hurt my elbow and knee. The VO said it was a national emergency and that vets had to do menial jobs. On TV that night, Mr Nick Brown says all is under control and going well.

CUFFE: Eventually hundreds more vets had to be recruited. Many came from overseas and most of them had never seen Foot and Mouth before. But these were front line troops. Alan Richardson says what was really missing was leadership.

RICHARDSON: It was like going to war without officers. The Foot and Mouth disease control needs cadre of experienced and trained people who can direct it. There simply weren’t any, or there were so few and so handicapped by administrators and politicians that they were rapidly sidelined. It was almost as if as a captain of a platoon you were getting your orders from a clerk at the Ministry of Defence rather than through your colonel, and the reason for that, of course, is that the State Veterinary Service was absolutely decimated in the mid 1990s. There’s a black hole there, a deficit right at the very centre from which everything else, everything else has ensued.

CUFFE: Ministers say the State Veterinary Service could never have enough staff to deal with an epidemic and that new recruits were quickly brought in. On March 23rd, as the public became more and more alarmed by pictures of dead animals, the government geared up its response. At a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, the chief scientific advisor proposed a 24 hour time limit on killing animals at infected farms, and 48 hours for culling those on neighbouring or contiguous premises. That same day the Agriculture Minister announced that in Cumbria and across the Scottish border, all sheep within a radius of three kilometres should be slaughtered. The contiguous cull policy was based on epidemiological models showing how the disease would spread. Paul Kitching was then in charge of the nation’s Foot and Mouth control centre – part of the Animal Health Laboratory in Pirbright. He believes it was a serious mistake.

KITCHING: What unfortunately happened was that the whole programme got hijacked by the Science Committee, and the Science Committee consisted predominantly of modellers, and then it was no longer in the hands of the veterinary services, the people who actually had experience and knew how to control epidemic disease, it was now in the hands of mathematical modellers who were then advising the Prime Minister. And some of the Science Committee meetings I went to were very much as I would imagine the Mad Hatter’s tea party, because they seemed to be totally out of touch with reality. If you look at the number of new outbreaks being reported a day and then subtracted from that the incubation period, you’d find that the spread of disease was actually stopped by the time the modellers started taking over the policy. So the consequence of following a model was that you had a gross overkill of animals in order to control the outbreak. Of course the modellers say, ‘Well, we got the thing, the outbreak under control,’ and yes, that’s true, but then they could argue that if you slaughtered every susceptible animal in the country you could get it under control within 24 hours.

CUFFE: Dr Kitching says he argued against the Science Committee’s epidemiological model, but was sidelined. Over the next few months, millions of animals were slaughtered in the contiguous and three kilometre culls. The pressure was on vets to make a rapid diagnosis in the field. At Pirbright a team of thirty technicians were testing samples retrospectively and it soon became clear that many animals, clinically diagnosed as diseased, were in fact perfectly healthy.

KITCHING: Sheep clinically are very difficult to identify with Foot and Mouth disease, unlike cattle and pigs where the clinical signs are very obvious. So when they brought in the 24 hour cull, which required veterinarians to clinically identify infected animals and confirm that they had Foot and Mouth disease without support from a laboratory, this would have been fine in cattle and pigs, but with sheep this was not possible, therefore over 50% of the samples I was receiving at Pirbright from flocks and herds which had been clinically diagnosed as positive were actually negative, and this was an inevitable consequence of this 24 hour cull policy.

CUFFE: There is a continuing dispute about the actual scale of the epidemic and whether the cull killed millions of animals that may never have caught the disease. Jan Bayley of the National Foot and Mouth Group says that at the height of the mass slaughter they pressed the government for figures about how many were tested in the laboratory as positive.

BAYLEY: It seemed to us that the level of disease that was being reported by MAFF at the time was far higher than was being reported by farmers. The results kept coming back negative, negative, negative on the results of lab testing. We wrote to the Secretary of State, asking of the so-called infected premises how many had been lab tested and what were the results. We didn’t receive an answer for nine months. In the end we had to get a Parliamentary Question asked and we got the results nine months later.

CUFFE: What did that show you?

BAYLEY: It showed us that in certain areas, for example Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcester and Shropshire, the incidence of disease was far lower than had been maintained. I mean, in Gloucestershire 72 infected premises were recorded, and that also resulted in 346 farms being taken out in Gloucestershire. But on lab testing only 13 actually tested positive. And so we had a massive scale of culling which has just not been supported by the lab test results that have been produced.

CUFFE: Some vets felt it was contrary to their professional oath to kill healthy animals in circumstances that were often extremely distressing. But Dr. Sheila Crispin of Bristol University’s Veterinary Department doesn’t just have moral objections. She believes the cull may even have prolonged the epidemic.

CRISPIN: We may have actually made the situation worse rather than better, because we overloaded a system already working under extreme pressure. I think, for example, it is accepted that the 24 hour target to kill infected animals and the 48 hour target to kill contiguous premises was very rarely met. It may have actually extended things, because of course you had lots more movements of people involved in the culling process, and I know that on occasions the cleansing and disinfection of individuals was not as good as it should have been – that includes slaughtermen and veterinary surgeons themselves. So potentially the very people involved in the culling may have helped to spread the disease.

CUFFE: In Cumbria, Nick Green, a mountaineering instructor who found himself out of work, believed farmers were being unfairly blamed for spreading Foot and Mouth, so he began to collect evidence of poor bio-security by MAFF officials and contractors.

GREEN: This is a picture of a cull lorry that’s waiting to pick up dead stock. We could hear them killing them as I stood there. And you can see the trailer part of the lorry was tipped up and coming out of the back was red coloured leach-out, it was pouring all over the road. And here you can see probably around 1,500 pregnant Swaledale ewes. But as you can see in the photographs here, they just leave their bio-suits lying on the floor. There’s a yellow bag there containing all other bits and pieces and bloodied suits and everything else, and that’s how they left it. And indeed on many occasions I’ve seen bio-suits just blowing around the roads, covered in blood and all sorts.

CUFFE: Junior Agriculture Minister, Elliot Morley, defends the contiguous cull. He says they’d do it again in the event of a future outbreak, and he dismisses any suggestion that MAFF workers spread the disease.

MORLEY: All our officials and contractors had very clear guidelines about bio-security. We did receive a number of complaints about contractors working on behalf of the Department breaching bio-security. They were all investigated. Hardly any of them were actually shown to be true, but where there were cases, contractors were either warned or in some cases they were dismissed.

CUFFE: But do you concede that this might have helped spread the disease further?

MORLEY: Well given from what we know about the movements of our contractors, their contribution would have been miniscule.

CUFFE: At the height of the outbreak, the former head of Foot and Mouth at Pirbright says that half the animals diagnosed as having the disease turned out to be negative on laboratory tests.

MORLEY: That’s right, but that doesn’t tell you very much, because the whole idea of the diagnosis was to ensure that animals were culled before the disease was rife and spreading throughout the herd. So that doesn’t tell you whether or not the animals were actually incubating the disease, because that only shows up in the blood test in the later stages.

CUFFE: It wouldn’t explain why two-thirds in some counties were negative, because in several parts of the country, fewer than a third of the cases diagnosed as positive actually turned out on laboratory tests to have the disease.

MORLEY: The fact that they didn’t show up on the test means that the disease may not have advanced to the point that it would. And it may well be true that some vets were erring on the side of caution in relation to diagnosis, but you have to bear in mind you are dealing with a disease that at one point could very easily have spiralled out of control to the extent that we could now have Foot and Mouth disease as an endemic disease in the whole country.

EXTRACT FROM BBC RADIO 4 6 o’clock News Bulletin, 26th March 2001

NEWSREADER: The mass burial of sheep slaughtered in the Foot and Mouth crisis has begun in Cumbria. Thousands of carcasses have been dumped in a huge pit at a disused airfield at Great Orton, ten miles from Carlisle. The army, who are supervising the process, believe the site may eventually provide the burial place for half a million animals.

CUFFE: The abiding image of the epidemic was the picture of dead carcasses being dropped into mass graves. By the end, as many as 11 million animals had been killed. The Ministry’s figure is lower, but doesn’t include newborn lambs. The burial pit at Great Orton in Cumbria will be a scar on the landscape for years to come, and it’ll also continue to be a drain on the public purse. In the National Audit Office’s report, director Richard Eales puts the total cost of buying land and digging burial pits at £79 million.

EALES: The Department was in a weak negotiating position with contractors in building these pits. For instance, in Great Orton they had to pay six times the normal value of the land to get that pit constructed. There were two pits which cost an awful lot of money where no animals were buried. This was Epint in Wales, where some animals were buried there and they had to be dug up and burnt because of seepage problems, and a second pit, Ashmoor in Devon. That was never used for burying animals, even though that cost  £7 million to construct.

CUFFE: Now is that a cost that’s over and done with as far as the government is concerned?

EALES: No. There’s still substantial expenditure to be incurred on these pits. Over the next fifteen years the Department expects to spend another £35 million maintaining these mass burial pits.

CUFFE: National auditors criticise the government for failing to control costs. They say there was wasted expenditure, procurement errors and insufficient monitoring. Junior Agriculture Minister Elliot Morley says some of this was inevitable.

MORLEY: You’re dealing with an emergency, a national emergency in relation to epidemic. You needed to get the equipment on site urgently, and you had to get it there, and that was the priority. And of course that is not a good environment for very tight price control, when you’re desperate for plants, you’re desperate for all sorts of machinery, and of course the people who are supplying you know that very well. You need to have that equipment, those teams, those people, those specialists. That does make you a bit vulnerable in relation to cost.

CUFFE: So the contractors had you over a barrel?

MORLEY: Basically, yes.

CUFFE: One of the biggest costs of the epidemic was £295 million for cleansing and disinfecting farms so that they could be safely restocked. On one small farm, where slaughtered animals were valued at only £4,000 the clean-up bill was £59,000.

David Wardrope, a Lockerbie vet who monitored some of this work for MAFF, says he was horrified at the waste of taxpayers’ money, particularly as the risk of infection in many of the farms was minimal and the government wasn’t legally obliged to help clean them.

WARDROPE: By some quirk of imagination it was decreed that all these premises would be cleaned and disinfected to a standard where you could just about eat your breakfast off the concrete floors. A lot of the farmers would take on the cleansing and disinfection of the premises themselves. I think it was £15 an hour they got, and if they hired the various tractors and various other parts of plant, they were paid accordingly. At the end of the day, some of these farmers would be coming out with a considerable cheque.

CUFFE: So they were being paid, in some cases, to clean up their own farms – a job which perhaps you would have expected them to do themselves anyway?

WARDROPE: They got the chance, if they wanted, to embark on the disinfection themselves, they could do so, yes. So, I mean, this would seem as a nice way to earn some cash. I mean, one or two boys said to me, ‘God, I’ve never made so much money in my life, I’ve never been paid £15 an hour for cleaning up the place.’ If you were in contract, hiring machinery, it certainly was a bonanza, and I can assure you there’s a lot of people have got very rich out of the whole episode.

CUFFE: Forensic accountants are now investigating the invoices of more than a hundred of the largest contractors employed during the epidemic, and legal proceedings may follow. In over 40% of claims they have been unable to confirm that the work being invoiced was, in fact, carried out. The biggest bill of all - £1,158 million in compensation to farmers – is now being scrutinised by the European Union. Britain is due to get a certain percentage back, but only if it can satisfy European auditors that its supporting records are sufficiently robust. It was legally required to compensate farmers for slaughtered animals, but as the National Audit Office discovered, problems administering payments led to spiralling costs. A sheep valued at £100 at the start was valued at £300 by July, and the price of cattle similarly trebled. Fees for the valuers themselves were based on 1% of the total value of stock, a scheme that the auditors describe as ‘inherently risky and open to abuse’. Junior Agriculture Minister Elliot Morley agrees there are lessons to be learned.

MORLEY: I think there may well be steps that we can take that will make us less vulnerable to this kind of financial problem in the future, and again that’s one of the lessons that we have to learn.

CUFFE: Why did you spend so much paying farmers to clean up their own farms?

MORLEY: Well we actually brought the cost under control, we actually put a stop on it when we felt that the cost was spiralling out of control, and we also tried to ensure that whenever there was what we thought were costs which were outside the norm, that there was a full investigation into that, and there are number of bills that we are refusing to pay because we feel that they aren’t justified.

CUFFE: Now another problem seems to be the compensation that you paid to farmers, and the value of animals trebled during the course of the disease.

MORLEY: I think in some cases, I think it was more like doubling as a matter of fact, particularly in cattle.

CUFFE: Well the National Audit Office have examples, all of which show that costs trebled.

MORLEY: Yes, but they would be in some cases. I’m just talking overall, where you’re looking at doubling. But whatever we’re talking about, I’m not disputing with you, you are right in that there was a gradual increase in the valuations that were taking place by independent valuers throughout the epidemic, and I actually do agree with the National Audit Office that there are certainly questions to be asked about that.

CUFFE: Ministers repeat the mantra that this was an epidemic on an unprecedented scale.

It’s certainly true that more animals were slaughtered than ever before.

But the question is, was that necessary? When all the public inquiries have finished, some painful lessons will have been learned. But taxpayers, and those who make a living from the countryside, will be paying the price of the government’s mistakes for years to come.

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warmwell is very grateful to the BBC for sending this transcript.