MAGNUS LINKLATER: So that’s it then - no one to blame for F&M disasterHUMILITY is a rare commodity in public life these days. In politics it is virtually unknown. Rarely, however, has its absence been more glaringly apparent than in the aftermath to last year’s outbreak of foot and mouth.
The three national reports which have now been published into the origins of the disease and the devastation it wrought upon the country have exposed a sorry picture of our national institutions and their inability to respond. Caught out by the early spread of the disease, they seem to have been incapable of understanding the nature of the virus or the way in which it was spreading.
There was incompetence from civil servants, a failure of leadership by ministers, narrow self-interest from the farmers’ unions and the food industry; a disastrous lack of communications from top to bottom of the system. A nation that once prided itself on the sound state of its veterinary science emerges as ill-prepared for a major epidemic and bereft of clear-cut decision-making.
For all that, however, we have heard not a whisper of apology from those responsible. Margaret Beckett, the minister whose department was largely responsible for the mass slaughter and the funeral pyres, while acknowledging to parliament that mistakes had been made, took no personal responsibility for any of them and was not to be drawn on what steps would be taken to correct them.
Tony Blair, who ‘took control’ of the strategy during that awful spring when millions of healthy animals were slaughtered and our tourist industry was driven on to the ropes, has left for his holiday without saying anything about the wholesale reforms that are clearly essential if the same mistakes are to be avoided next time.
Last week, the government’s chief scientist, Professor David King, came to Scotland to address the Royal Society of Edinburgh, whose own report exposes the widespread misconceptions about vaccination and the inadequacies of our scientific research. From him at least one might have expected a measure of self-criticism.
After all, it was he who was the Prime Minister’s principal adviser on handling the disease; he who once boasted that the culling operation had been implemented "within days" when, as all the reports confirm, it needed the army to do the job; he who claimed in April that the epidemic was "fully under control" when of course it lingered on until September; above all it was he who ensured that vaccination, the one course that might have saved the countryside, was never adopted as a policy. By arguing that vaccinated animals could still carry the disease and become hidden spreaders of it, he effectively skewered the pro-vaccination argument.
Yet that claim was directly challenged by the RSE’s report. In paragraph 100, it examines the ‘carrier’ issue and dismisses it. "There are no grounds for believing that vaccination per se will enhance the carrier state," it says. "Indeed there is some evidence that substantially fewer carrier animals are found amongst vaccinated animals that have been exposed to infection." At the very least one might have expected Professor King to take those arguments on board. Instead, he made it clear that his views had not changed. Next time, we were given to understand, the same policies would be adopted.
For sheer complacency, however, I would like to single out one man whose adamantine opposition to vaccination, and whose close contacts with the Prime Minister helped ensure that the programme of mass slaughter was followed through to the bitter end, whatever the arguments raised against it. Jim Walker, president of the National Farmers Union Scotland, was quoted last week as saying of the report by Dr Ian Anderson - ‘Lessons to be Learned’ - that it bore out his own views on the need for good planning and communication.
"It is reassuring," he said, "that Dr Anderson agrees with these crucial points."
This is quite breathtaking. What Dr Anderson in fact makes clear, as do all the other reports, is that it was opposition to vaccination from the farmers’ unions, on the narrow grounds that exports had to be preserved at all costs, which meant that this civilised option which would have avoided so much of the horror and the suffering, was never implemented.
No one was more vociferous in condemning it than Mr Walker. In April last year he launched a furious attack on ministers who were beginning to consider it. "Vaccination is not an option," he said. "I think it is absolutely despicable that politicians for dirty political ends are using farmers who are in a desperate situation," he said. "The politicians see vaccination as an easy route out and are clearly more biased in favour of tourism."
So there we have it. Mr Walker believes that an export trade which amounts to no more than #500m a year is more important than a tourist industry whose losses have been calculated at up to #9bn. And he was arguing, as we now know from the RSE report, on the basis of wrong information, biased reasoning, and a minimal understanding of science.
If farmers are indeed in "a desperate situation" then perhaps their leader must bear some of the responsibility. It is time, I would suggest, for a little humility from the man universally known as ‘Walker the talker’.