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FIVE REPORTS DOCUMENTED DISASTER



 
09:00 - 27 November 2002
 
 Last week the European Parliament delivered the fifth and final report
of a series of official inquiries into the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic.
In this four-page special report, Farming Editor Peter Hall and reporter
Andrea Kuhn draw together the various findings which form the final word
on the rural disaster

IT is time the whole foot and mouth disease fiasco of last year was
confined to the history books - a dark shadow over the start of the 21st
century for the United Kingdom, when a Government dithered as the
countryside burned, writes Andrea Kuhn.

The publication of the European report into the outbreak - still to be
debated - was a damning finding of guilt, with accusations that the
outbreak should have been better contained. Farmers had been
intimidated, the proper procedures ignored and European Union laws
openly flouted, it stated.

Not surprisingly, the Labour Government has dismissed its findings as
inaccurate and the results of a plot by Conservatives and Greens to
undermine the administration.

The European report was the last in a long line of reports to have
emerged from the disaster.

The first was the report by Sir Don Curry's policy commission "Farming
and Food: A Sustainable Future" which indicated a way forward for an
entire industry, advocating "joined-up thinking" in the food chain and a
change of direction for farming, a concept later adopted by the EU for
its Common Agricultural Policy mid-term review.

Then there was the Scientific Report from the Royal Society, looking,
very largely, at the ways that carcasses were disposed.

And the massive Lessons to be Learned Report by the Anderson Inquiry,
recommended ways to ensure such a pestilence never happened again.

But locally, the Devon inquiry was the first, and for many rural people
in the Westcountry it remains the only inquiry that attempted to seek
answers and offer a way forward, with the minimum of political bias.

Organised by Devon County Council last October, it was easy for
Government officials to dismiss it, but as well as trying to establish
how to prevent such an outbreak in the future, it afforded an outlet for
people who were still traumatised by the crisis.

In summing up Prof Ian Mercer, who chaired the inquiry, said the
response from the Secretary of State Margaret Beckett and her new
department Defra (Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs) was
"pathetic" as they had failed to provide sufficient answers.

A year on and three Government inquiries later, questions remain and the
last hope is the enforcement powers of the European Union.

The Devon Inquiry, which had all-party support, was set over five days
and quizzed a range of people from farmers and vets to officials from
the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now Defra) and
journalists.

One of the most emotional issues throughout the whole crisis had been
the contiguous cull which vet Wendy Vere described as "carnage by
computer."

Mrs Vere, who runs a practice in Morchard Bishop, near Crediton said:
"The computer would say all these holdings have to be taken out without
taking account that livestock miles away from the infected premises were
no more a disease risk than any other animal in the county."

She said she had also been given samples of unburnt skin and hair which
had fallen onto the busy North Devon Link Road two miles downwind of a
pyre at an infected premises. She assessed the risk of them contracting
the disease was "100 per cent." Remains were also blown onto the village
of Knowstone, a significant fact she believed as a number of cases of
the virus were later reported there.

The inquiry was also told of a bungled cull at the blighted village
which scattered animals and spread the disease still further.

For many the symbol of the Government's ineptitude had been highlighted
by the massive burial pit of Ash Moor, near Petrockstowe in North Devon.
The size of several football pitches, it had been foisted on the local
community, but it took so long to complete that two-week old putrefying
carcasses were stacking up around the county.

By the time it was finished the carcass mountain, which had topped
100,000 had been removed in other ways. But the village was left with
the pit. Only last week did work finally begin to reinstate it.

Memorably Mark and Paddi Tomlinson told the inquiry of how their family
had been given 24 hours to leave their home, which was threatened by the
thunder of lorries driving past as the pit was constructed. They had
refused but now they said it was like "living in a city" and their
children feared they would have to leave at any moment.

Poor communication was cited as one of the chief reasons for the massive
spread of disease. Slaughter targets of 48 hours were fruitless because
all decisions had to be referred to London, which was inundated by
requests from around Britain.

Roger Rivett, head of Trading Standards in Devon, said: "Although
numerous attempts were made during crisis, the Ministry failed to shift
the public perception that they were secretive and, frankly, arrogant in
the way they were managing the response to the outbreak. One of the
reasons for this, in my view, and a major difference between local and
central government, seemed to be the lack of local accountability -
which seems to be fostered by the heavy central influence on the
Ministry HQ in London."

One of the most distressing sights for all rural people had been to
witness how livestock suffered.

Instead of happy gambolling lambs, the newspapers at Easter time had
shown pictures of them drowning in mud. Their fields had become swamps
as a result of foul weather and the combination of movement restrictions
and a disastrous slaughter scheme, which had overwhelmed the
Intervention Board, was slowly killing them.

In some cases the RSPCA had to step in and slaughter flocks of sheep.
Regional Superintendent John Tresidder said the outbreak of foot and
mouth caused animal welfare problems on an "unprecedented scale" the
like of which he had not seen in 30 years. In some cases farmers had
been refused permission to move their animals even a short distance - by
someone who had no knowledge of the situation on the ground. Some of the
RSPCA's telephone operators had been in tears after talking to farmers
about their difficulties.

Sir John Evans, the then-Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall Police,
told the inquiry that the lack of command and control had exacerbated a
difficult situation and he noted that in most other emergency situations
the police were the lead agency instead of civil servants, not trained
in such matter.

He said the military should have been brought in sooner, but with a
clear remit.

"Whoever takes the lead in future needs to be better at developing
contingency plans and exercising them where they are likely to come into
use, and needs the proper level of training and resources to implement
them," he said.