We were wrong, admits Beckett

Nov 7 2002

By The Journal


The Government's humiliation over foot-and-mouth was complete last night as it accepted in full the findings of a damning report into its handling of last year's outbreak.

In its formal response to a series of inquiries into the epidemic, ministers tacitly admitted they had done virtually everything wrong in their attempts to control the disease.

The document, published yesterday, concedes that if another outbreak occurred, it would be handled differently in almost every key respect - including vaccinating animals.

But despite the climbdown, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett was last night still refusing opposition demands for the Government to apologise for its blunders.

Yesterday's response by the Government follows the critical report into the outbreak carried out by leading scientists Dr Iain Anderson published in July.

It concluded the former Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) then headed by Newcastle East MP Nick Brown, had failed to respond speedily enough to the epidemic.

In particular it criticised Maff for not restricting animal movements soon enough and for failing to hand control of the crisis to the Cabinet Office until the 31st day.

And it blamed Mr Brown personally for losing the trust of rural communities after he wrongly claimed the Government had the crisis "under control."

In a statement to MPs yesterday, Mrs Beckett said the Government accepted "virtually all" Dr Anderson's recommendations and endorses the lessons which he drew in his report.

Flanked by an impassive Mr Brown, she repeated her earlier admission that mistakes had been made in the handling of the crisis, which cost the rural economy 8bn.

But asked by Tory MP Peter Ainsworth whether she should say sorry on behalf of the Government for its mishandling of the epidemic, she stopped short of an apology.

She said: "I have made plain that the Government accepts mistakes were made, but I have also made plain a huge effort was undertaken to bring the disease under control."

Yesterday's Government response confirmed new contingency arrangements had now been put in place to ensure a speedier response to any future epidemic.

An immediate ban on animal movements will be imposed as soon as the first case is confirmed, while the Army will also be placed on alert from the start.

The document also revealed, for the first time, that emergency vaccination will form part of any future disease control strategy.

And responsibility for tackling illegal meat imports has been passed from Defra to Customs and Excise.

Unveiling the new measures, Mrs Beckett said: "Emergency vaccination will form part of the control strategy from the start. This doesn't mean that wider culling strategies will never again be needed."

Closure of footpaths in a future outbreak is to be restricted to public rights of way within a 3km radius of infected farms. It follows criticism of the blanket footpath closures of last year which led tourists to conclude the countryside was "closed for business."

Mrs Beckett faced tough questioning from North-East and Cumbrian MPs following her statement.

In response to a question from Blyth Valley MP Ronnie Campbell, she confirmed pyres would no longer routinely be used for disposing of animals.

Berwick MP Alan Beith asked whether she supported Dr Anderson's recommendation there should be compensation for communities such as Widdrington affected by burial sites.

Mrs Beckett made no promises, saying the issue was still being looked at.

The Government faces potential further embarrassment over foot-and- mouth when a report by the Public Accounts Committee is published.