Geoffrey Lean: A foot and mouth fiasco that has taught us nothing

The cull was wrong, experts agree. This newspaper said so from the start. Yet the Government still insists on putting a gloss on it. 28 July 2002

Just about a year ago, when Margaret Beckett set up the official inquiries into the foot and mouth fiasco, the Secretary of State for the Environment laid down her expectation of their findings. They would conclude, she said, that the Government's handling of the epidemic had been a "howling success''. My first reaction, I confess, was that she was exhibiting a dry sense of humour: after all, it had been clear for months that Agricultural ministers and officials had perpetrated one of the greatest maladministrations of recent years.

Silly me! She was, of course, absolutely serious. Perhaps there is some excuse for so misreading the minister: she had been in the post for only a few weeks. But there could be no grounds, after all these years, for underestimating the Government's infinite -- almost paranoid -- obsession with self-justification.

Now that the investigations are published, with the most important and most devastating of them -- the Anderson inquiry into the "lessons to be learnt'' from the epidemic -- coming out last week, there is certainly howling. But it is in anguish, rather than congratulation. Yet the instinctive self-justification seems hardly to have abated at all.

Mrs Beckett admits that the inquiry by Dr Iain Anderson, a former adviser to the Prime Minister, has made "trenchant criticisms''. But, in a statement determinedly putting the best gloss on the report, she repeatedly emphasises that these are made with "hindsight'', as if the countless mistakes and misjudgements could not have been avoided in time.

Sorry, Margaret, but that just won't wash. The errors that were to so devastate farming and the countryside were clearly pointed out at the time, not least by this newspaper. And they were understood by ministers and top officials who privately expressed their support for our criticism and urged us to continue: one even confidentially described official policy as "insanity''.

From the start we said the Government's draconian measures were unnecessary and counter-productive. We pointed out that foot and mouth was a relatively mild condition, posing no threat to humans and rarely even killing animals. The mass slaughter was carried out to try (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to protect Britain's meat exports: it was an economic disease.

Yet, we continued, the costs of the measures far exceeded the limited value of the exports. The blanket closure of the countryside and its footpaths was causing immense damage to tourism: yet not a single case of the disease anywhere in the world was known to have been spread by walkers. We condemned the mass funeral pyres and pressed the Government to consider vaccination as a real option.

As the epidemic progressed, we pointed out that millions of healthy animals were being needlessly killed, that farmers were getting excessive compensation and that their failure to take simple safety precautions was largely responsible for spreading the disease. We highlighted the incompetence of the late, unlamented Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff). And we argued for a reorientation of agriculture from maximising food production to sustaining farming, the environment and the rural economy.

In most of this we were virtually alone, particularly in the first weeks of the epidemic. The authorities denounced our objections as "nonsense''. Environmental groups, which should have led the criticism, were silent, at least initially. Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association -- who was to become the Government's most articulate and effective critic -- said that this was because opposing voices were made to feel "disloyal to the country''.

The Anderson report now bears us out, confirming the result of other official inquiries into the epidemic. It concludes, for example, that the value of maintaining exports was "not material'' compared to the £8bn the control measures cost the country. It recommends that the pyres -- which did much to kill overseas tourism -- should never be lit again. It says that "emergency vaccination must form part of the strategic options available to manage any future outbreak'', a conclusion endorsed even more strongly by a Royal Society inquiry this month. And it backs the recommendations of the official Curry report earlier this year for a transition to environmentally friendly farming.

It also bears out the findings of yet another investigation, by the National Audit Office, which exposed massive abuses of compensation by farmers, while tourism and other businesses ruined by the closure of the countryside got virtually nothing. And it produces devastating evidence to suggest that 80 per cent of the spread of the disease appears to have been caused by farmers failing to observe safety measures properly.

The blanket closure of footpaths in the countryside were, it notes, "supported by many at the time''. It can say that again. The Prime Minister pushed it. Nick Brown, then Agriculture Minister, urged local authorities "to prosecute people who insist on arguing'' about it. Groups such as the National Trust, the Ramblers' Association and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds -- which should have been championing public access -- supinely submitted. But the Anderson inquiry now supports our view that it was "a mistake'', contributing to the cost to tourism and related businesses of between £4bn and £5bn. Above all, the report lays bare the sheer incompetence of Maff. It "could not cope'', panicked, and was lost in "confusion''. Its decision-making was "haphazard and messy'' and it knew too little of what was happening on the ground. Here Mrs Beckett and her officials get indignant. They point out that the virus had already spread to 57 farms in 16 counties before it was detected, and dredge up admissions from the report that, as a result, an epidemic was inevitable.

But this is wilfully to miss the point. The report shows conclusively that the incompetence, complacency and very culture of Whitehall and the Government turned "a serious veterinary problem'' into "a national disaster''.

Complacency caused them to be unprepared, even though officials knew that the disease was an increasing threat. Contingency plans were "limited'' and partially "out of date''. Proper preparation would have brought the disease under control more quickly, prevented the enormous backlogs in disposing of carcasses, and -- probably -- brought in vaccination.

The same complacency led ministers and officials to insist that the disease was "under control'' -- and to reject help -- even as it was escalating across the country.

The cultural failure was even greater. As the report shows, the disease was seen purely as an agricultural issue, and tackled as such. The devastating wider effects on people, the countryside and the economy were ignored until too late. The same attitude brought about the BSE catastrophe, and is now preparing to inflict GM crops and food on an unwilling nation.

Maff's body may lie mouldering in a Whitehall grave, but its culture goes marching on. The new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so far shows little sign of being much better, as Dr Anderson himself hints in his report. Mrs Beckett's self-justifying response bodes ill for the future.

At the very beginning of his report Dr Anderson warns: "We seem destined to repeat the mistakes of history.'' Unless there are fundamental changes -- and quickly -- it looks very much as if he is going to be proved right.

This month Geoffrey Lean won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for investigative journalism for his coverage of the foot and mouth crisis.