REPORT ON THE CUMBRIA CC F&M INQUIRY

MEETING HELD 13/05/02

AT SALTERBECK (WORKINGTON)

CUMBRIA

 

 

Present:                                            Prof. Phil Thomas (Chairman)

                                                         Prof. Derek Ellwood:  Microbiologist

                                                         John Hetherington: Lead Officer Cumbria CC

                                                         Howard Christie: Hotelier (Wasdale Head Inn)

                                                         David Etherden: Keswick Local Businessman

                                                         Philip Hancock:  Jim Peet Agriculture Supplies

                                                         E.J.Hetherington: Retired Farmer & former

                                                                                      Agricultural Educationalist.

 

The audience comprised some 45 people with a predominance of farmers, some local business people and local councillors.

 

The Chairman invited contributions from the floor with the caveat that the Inquiry was not privileged and the normal rules of defamation could apply. Speakers could, if they wished, give their names. The Press was told to ensure  prior approval if names were to be used. The BBC Radio Cumbria and the Times & Star newspaper reporters were present.

 

The Chairman explained that they were an independent body paid for by Cumbria County Council.  He said that the remit he had was to look at the outbreak and the control  methods, basically what went on: where what happened was satisfactory or where it was not. The brief extended to looking at communications and advice  both locally and the Centre (Page Street in London);  at looking at issues of organisational capacity: whether or not there were enough people on the ground, how it operated, did it work quickly enough when the demand came on: the impact on the Cumbrian Economy and on the Community. In  this latter sense , the committee has been asked to do some profiling of what happened prior to and during the outbreak and how things have recovered. That has a number of phases to it. Finally, to look at policies and strategies for the future because a number of changes have been introduced since the outbreak: eg The Curry Report of the future of agriculture (which has implications) and Defra`s published  formal strategy for dealing with any Foot & Mouth outbreak.

 

(largely verbatim report on the Chairman`s comments)

 

The  Chairman invited comments on the early stages  and the control of the outbreak and what issues arose.

 A farmer`s wife offered a personal view was that MAFF failed to take the outbreak seriously enough and allowed it to go on before they clamped down on the animal movements. She had the view that MAFF thought the outbreak was something which would  go away. This she felt was either ignorance or arrogance.

 

Farmer Joe Dobson said that he lives adjacent to his son who now runs the farm. They were diagnosed as having F&M on 26th. March and culled out in two days. He had praise for the copybook way in which this work was done: thereafter it was a “bloody hash”. He was constantly given misleading explanations, requirements, contradictions: even hostility at times. The handling was pathetic. The now familiar story of dead stock left lying in the fields, no staff available to start disinfecting or cleansing came through.

 

The Chairman referred to other earlier evidence which indicated that in some cases the process of being culled out and the stock removed operated quite effectively whereas in other cases it had been an absolute nightmare. In some cases there had been delays on stock killing but most delays seemed to occur in stock disposal. Probably there was an initial period right at the beginning before the outbreak really took off where MAFF were coping and then there was a period where they were not coping and a further period where they managed to get on top of things again.

 

Mr. Dobson said that he could not know what was being experienced elsewhere because after the slaughter, he was virtually persona non grata : forgotten and ignored. Only Radio Carlisle provided any information as to what was going on. Nothing in writing came from MAFF other than some information showing F&M in cattle. The diagnosis of F&M on their farm had been carried out by an American vet who had  arrived, literally, that day and who had never seen a case of F&M before. The symptoms in the stock were extremely mild and  months later, the test results were found to be negative. The vet, working under pressure to avoid delays between diagnosis and slaughter caused her to err on the side of likely infection. With the dead stock piled together, the issue of cattle with BSE was raised and the fact that those over 5 years of age should be sent for rendering. The farm, being located in the middle of a village offered no facilities for burning or burial, leaving rendering as the only alternative.

 

A lady farmer agreed with this adding that the vet who came wasn`t provided with a map but other than that, she was exemplary. Although F&M indications were quite clear, she was forced to ring Page Street and explained that the “rubbish” she would have to go through would try her patience. The vet said that this sort of delay was common making the removal of stock from the farm so much more difficult. Subsequent delays occurred in trying to get Carlisle office to confirm that it was  F&M.  The slaughter teams were excellent although not the MAFF Field Officer who had come to tell everyone what to do. The Army told him to leave or sit in his car yet he re-appeared for three days. Somehow he managed to avoid being disinfected :- and this during the rampant phase of the disease.

 He knew nothing about building disinfection so another Field Officer was requested but he was no better . Nobody could advise the farmer and this was almost as bad as being told your stock had to go.

 These cases were generally agreed to be common to all farms: repeated requests to MAFF for advice  ignored, MAFF asking time and again for information they had already received and no progress. All the time farmers were worried about their farms and the conditions and this was totally ignored by MAFF. The problem did not seem to be solely confined to MAFF at Carlisle but existed at Page Street and even higher in the Government structure.

 

Generally the Field Officers were drafted in from other parts of the country with little or no relevant experience and inadequate training.

 

The subject of animal movements through the country was discussed although it was concluded that whilst this information may have been new to the general public, it was widely known and accepted by the farming community as the norm for many years. It was noted that MAFF also seemed surprised by the volumes of animal movements.

 

There was considerable anger expressed over the selection and use of the Distington  tip. Whilst a Public Meeting about the use was in progress, the vehicles carrying infected carcasses were arriving at the site having travelled into this previously clean area. The Parish Council backed the farmers 100% and with their excellent help the area managed to remain “clean". Despite promises to limit the movements of trucks to daylight hours, movements continued throughout the night. It was also noted that the additional “stink” from these carcasses added further misery for the residents. It was therefore assumed that someone had given permission to use the site before the Public Consultation process took place.

 

Some farmers criticised the Government policy of banning exports  but continuing internal stock movements. Some dealers with export stock on their hands moved the animals back into the UK market: cutting their losses. It was noted that in France ALL movements were stopped and rigidly controlled by the Gendarmerie. A farmer reminded the audience that  the World FMD experts ( Prof. Brown,Barteling & Sutmoller) said that since the virus cannot swim or fly it attaches itself to both humans and vehicles.

 

Farmers did their level best to limit personal movement and contact with other people. Shopping was done at night or assisted by other people: in one case a farmer and his wife went by train to avoid going into a non-infected area. Trucks carrying carcasses used every possible road in the area. In addition, coal was removed from a non-infected area (Pica) for the pyres, plant hire equipment went to the burial sites and farm clearances, returning home each night. The Parish Council asked the County Council for disinfectant mats but in reality, very few were ever provided.

 

A farmer, designated as a Direct Contact, had further criticism of  the 3kms policy where his farm was on the fringe of  the zone but assured by the vet that  there were enough breaks around the property so the sheep were not at risk whereas cattle would have to go. This was overruled by MAFF at Carlisle and all the stock was taken. MAFF also told this farmer that  if he wanted to lodge a complaint he could not have his own vet as he was within the 3kms circle but then other farms were taken out on the basis of being in contact with him yet his was not an Infected Premises. A Contiguous Cull policy was in operation.

 

At a later stage a farmer stated that the local auction company enquired if he wanted to lose his cattle to the Voluntary Cull. Having said that he did not he was advised 2 weeks later by MAFF that the animals would be taken out as a Dangerous Contact. Although trucks containing infected stock continually passed the end of the road by the farm, their stock remained standing  up to today.

 

There was criticism of both the run-down of the State Veterinary Service and the lack of practical exposure to real cases of F&M. There were no  “dummy runs” to see how an outbreak could be handled. Many current vets in private practice have never seen F&M .

The farmers said that there was a need for identification of the disease by officials and rapid handling.

 

The issue of a fast diagnostic test was discussed and the offer by Prof. Fred Brown which was rejected. It was suggested that when this offer was made, MAFF were in the depths of the outbreak and unable to conduct evaluation tests. Clearly this whole issue is the crux of handling any future outbreak quickly. Blood testing was originally confined to Pirbright but gradually other laboratories were brought in, working to the Pirbright standard.

 

Further discussion concerned the freedom of milk tankers to move from farm to farm whereas common-sense would seem to be to dispose of the milk on the farm whilst the outbreak lasted rather than allow more vehicles to move around the whole County. MAFF office in Carlisle refused to admit that this was happening.

 

Stock movement was, in many cases, prohibited yet the suffering of many animals being unable to move, sometimes a matter of feet to lush pasture, was disgraceful. The bureaucratic and inflexible system caused genuine suffering to many animals. Some stock was reduced to eating soil. The issue of licensing caused general dissent. The rules were inflexible,  the system was slow, telephone calls were ignored and frequently licences were issued only to find that the period of permitted  movement had already expired. 

SUMMARY ON FARMING ISSUES

 Almost without exception, the farming and associated communities said that they had absolutely no faith whatever in DEFRA. Its performance (as MAFF) during the F&M disaster last year was pitiful. Whilst some veterinary advice, slaughter and disposal arrangements were exemplary, the bureaucratic nonsense created and sustained by Defra had to be experienced to be imagined. Urgent decisions were referred to Page Street with inevitable delays causing acute suffering to farmers and in some case, animals. Information provided by farmers was forgotten and asked to be repeated, Defra failed to make use of information already in their possession (eg IACS) and sought more details from farmers, incorrect addresses and map locations were given resulting in confusion and lost time and in some cases the losses of healthy stock in error. No information of any value came from Defra, farmers tended to rely on the service from BBC Radio Cumbria and Radio CFM (Carlisle) for up-to-date reports.

 

All of the endless and senseless muddle resulted in further stress and strain on farmers and their families at a time when they were already at their wits ends with worry.

 

Other issues touched upon covered cheap meat imports, a lack of `place of origin` meat labelling, the lack of a local abattoir making “local food for local people” difficult to achieve.  There was a concern that the disease (or even something else) may return and until we have a sensible, thought-through policy on vaccination, we need an emergency plan for the County. This should be run at farmer/vet level and follow the well-tried lines used by the Emergency Services for disasters.

 

The overall gloom about farming was voiced with the fear that younger men and women will not be attracted to farm life in the future.

 

NON-FARMING BUSINESSES

 

Many businesses suffered losses of at least 25-30% and more during the crisis. Some businesses had already failed. Whilst there was genuine assistance from the Inland Revenue, other departments were less sympathetic reflecting the lack of understanding of how this disease affected all businesses in and around infected areas.

 

The access to grants seemed difficult especially with some 78 agencies offering assistance. In some cases it seemed as though their only objectives were to ensure that they had high salaries and cars before grants were considered. Grant forms were often difficult to follow whilst the easily available grants were confined to IT issues or support for advertising and sales promotion.

 

A better use of the banks might have helped channel funds  to the most needy and in particular businesses which stood a chance of survival after the disaster.

 

 

 

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT

 

There was total agreement that whilst there were few physical health issues the biggest problem may lay in the medium term mental issues affecting a broad band of those caught up with the disaster. The wish of farmers to remain isolated from other contacts suggests that they may well have neglected treatment for such matters as diabetes although the serious concerns were for the farmers and their families exposed to more than twelve months of deeply distressing experiences.

 

Many children were forced to stay away from the farms with possible knock-on effects into examination results which occurred during the year. Children also saw their parents and relatives in deep distress, unable to find a way out of the problems which embroiled them. Also true is the possibility that the wrecking of personal finances on farms and in other businesses may affect the ability of parents to fund children either in further education or in normal recreational pursuits.

 

It remained a fact that the reason many farmers find it impossible to attend meetings such as this is largely due to an inability to speak about the horrors of the past twelve months. There has been an increase in calls to alcohol and drug help lines although this could indicate a deeper-seated problem of some duration. Nevertheless, the F&M disaster has created severe strains on many people who have never experienced anything of this nature before.

 

CONCLUSION

 

                        The meeting was brought to a close with a vote of thanks to the Inquiry team who throughout had demonstrated a substantial degree of courtesy and understanding which helped to bring out the various points during the debate.

 

DURATION OF DEBATE

 

Three hours and seven minutes.