Virus control is a disaster

Sep 24 2001 Evening Chronicle September 24

A series of foul ups have blighted the fight against foot and mouth, secret papers revealed today.

The Defra documents expose a catalogue of blunders behind the devastating spread of the virus.

The papers were handed to us by former Defra official Bryan Munro who today risked jail by speaking out about the gaffes.

Mr Munro, 47, who is breaking the Official Secrets Act by talking, claimed Government efforts to prevent the spread of the virus were 'a complete PR exercise'.

He revealed:

* Workers watched as lorries trundled away from the controversial Widdrington disposal site in Northumberland covered in contaminated ash

* Staff on site knew waste from the pyres was blowing onto nearby fields and houses

* Farmers and Defra staff ignored vital bio-security aimed at controlling the disease

* Mistakes were made with animal movement licences

* The administration at the hastily set-up Newcastle Disease Emergency Control Centre at Kenton Bar was chaotic.

* Officials knew of reports of farmers being offered contaminated stock and equipment so they could seek compensation.

* He was sprayed in the face with hazardous chemicals and now suffers chest problems

* Lorry drivers tried to leave farms with dirty wagons and outside contractors turned up to move animals without licences

* A farmer threatened Defra workers on his farm with a shotgun when they tried to remove stock.

* Soldiers were struck down with fever caught from animal waste. Members of the 39th Regiment fell ill with Q fever - a flu like virus

The confidential documents chronicle concerns throughout June, July and August that Defra workers were not paying enough attention to tightened security.

An internal staff newsletter dated June 18 reveals bio-security worries over waste disposal and items being returned dirty.

Another dated August 20, shortly before the disease resurfaced in the North East, said: "Reports have come back to the Ops Room that in some cases bio-security standards are not up to the required levels."

In many of the internal documents workers were repeatedly warned to stick to bio-security measures but Mr Munro, of Newcastle, admitted: "There were staff breaking the rules."

He also said farmers had not taken enough care to stop foot and mouth spreading, and said: "At umpteen farms the disinfectant mats were bone dry. The farmers weren't happy at the price of the disinfectant."

Mr Munro was based at Widdrington in late July and August, where he saw lorries leaving the site with contaminated ash covering their roofs.

He also claims the Widdrington operation was held up for weeks because wire in the tyres used on pyres blocked the machines sorting the waste.

Mr Munro also said many of the movement licences were full of mistakes.

"Some of the licences would be to move animals 50 yards and it would turn out to be 500.

"The farmers wanted to move their animals to be fed. There was a lot of friction."

A memo dated August 20 said a Defra official had been pulled up for issuing an incorrect licence and warned other officers to be careful.

After each job Defra workers filled in task sheets but many contain mistakes including the name of the farmer and the date and time of the job.

Mr Munro was employed by Defra as a temporary field officer from June until the end of August. He is still owed more than £2,000 in wages.

He said: "Every month they say they will finally sort the wages out but they don't. It's a shambles."

In July and August letters were sent to all field officers admitting a string of mistakes and miscalculations over pay.

Within the bundle of documents, there are also notices warning of farmers offered contaminated stock to allow them to claim damages.

Mr Munro said: "We had reports of farmers throwing animal eyes and tongues into their own fields to contaminate stock."

On one job Mr Munro was accidentally sprayed in the face by highly concentrated disinfectant at High House Farm, Matfen, Northumberland.

The chemicals scarred his face and he has suffered from chest pains since the incident.

He said: "I have been having chest pains and breathing problems after I got sprayed.It scarred my face and I still have red blotches. The hospital said the same would have happened to my lungs."

On the same day, July 11, there was a spillage of animal waste on the road.

Mr Munro identified bio-security problems on jobs at several other farms which he said he reported to Defra officials. At Catrow Farm, Morpeth, on July 5 he said a lorry driver tried to leave the site before washing out his vehicle.

And at Bygate Farm, Ponteland on June 17 he said bio-security measures were pointless because a road rang along edge of site and cars were not disinfected.

He also said wagon drivers turned up at farms without movement licences or the knowledge of Defra.

A staff news letter on June 18 said workers had been confronted by a farmer with a shotgun.

A Field Ops memo from July 9 revealed that members of the 39 Regiment had been struck down by Q fever.

Mr Munro's revelations come on the day a new ban on all movements of cattle and pigs except for slaughter was imposed in Northumberland.

The ban will also apply to sheep from next Monday and is for an indefinite period.

Northumberland is now classed by Defra s as a high risk area and subject to the most restrictive controls possible.

Mick King, county trading standards officer, said: "We have only had a few days to set up a new and complicated licensing system. Clearly Defra are having to resort to extreme measures to stop the disease spreading further."

Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said Mr Munro's revelations showed the Government failed to get to grips with the crisis early enough.

He said: "At the start of the outbreak, there was chaos, muddle and delay because of the Government's failure to act decisively and call in the army.

"Things are now much better organised and the effort to bring the Allendale outbreak under control showed how it should be done.

"However in an emergency operation like this things will not always go smoothly.

"Some individuals have undoubtedly been lax when it comes to bio-security.

"When the outbreak is over there must be a full public inquiry to look at mistakes, not to find someone to blame but so that if there is another outbreak in future the same mistakes are not made again.

No one from Defra was available for comment about the allegations.