Prevention was always better than slaughter

Commentary by Magnus Linklater

IF THE case for vaccination is finally won, it will be a triumph of humanity and good science over a cruel and narrow-minded policy that saw mass slaughter as the only way of combating the disease. It was always the case that protecting animals by vaccinating them was preferable to the mass burials, the funeral pyres, the collapse of tourism and the heartbreak caused to farmers as they watched the brutal killing of their animals.

But persuading government scientists, the National Farmers Union, and the all-powerful food industry was an uphill struggle. Their opposition to vaccination was deeply entrenched. In order to protect export markets they insisted that killing off any animals suspected of having the disease, or even those within a two-mile radius was the only answer. All arguments to the contrary were dismissed, suppressed or ignored.

The fact that ministers, including the Prime Minister, many of whom were privately in favour of vaccination, felt unable to resist these vested interests was a clear failure of leadership.

The case against the vested interests was made, with passion and conviction, by those who had worked with the disease throughout the world and knew it better than most. It was advanced by molecular biologists and by veterinary scientists, and it was urged daily by a group of campaigners, some of whom had never encountered an animal virus in their lives, but who were sickened by the slaughter. They picked up the science as they went along and conducted their campaign ceaselessly by e-mail and on the internet.

Their victory, if such it is, will be a slap in the face for Defra, the government department that set its face against vaccination and refused to listen to the scientific or economic evidence that supported it. The result has been a massive loss of trust between the farming community and Defra officials.

The Government set the tone early on, when it announced that the outbreak was under control when in fact it was not. This was a serious error. It meant that if you were a farmer in Cumbria or Dumfriesshire dealing with the tragedy of a major outbreak, listening to the voice of London telling you that the disease was being contained, you lost all confidence in government spokesmen.

At various stages, Defra announced that vaccination would not work, that there were not enough doses available and that vaccinated animals would have to be slaughtered in any event. All these statements were untrue.

The erosion of trust was found at local level as well. Anyone who has talked to farmers in areas affected by the disease will have heard the many stories of incompetence and duplicity which they encountered when their sheep or cattle were identified as infected or at risk.

Local knowledge was rejected in favour of bureaucratic intransigence. This frequently meant that healthy flocks were unnecessarily destroyed, that appalling and distressing scenes of incompetent slaughter took place.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the entire affair was the failure to advance scientific knowledge. A major outbreak, for all its destructive effect, offers unrivalled opportunities to understand the nature of a disease and to refine new vaccines to combat it. Developing a fast and reliable test to establish whether animals have been infected would have been a major advance.

By rejecting the case for vaccination, the Government also rejected the case for ground-breaking scientific research.