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Page 10, March 27, 2006 in the Western Morning News

Ostrich government ignores the experts

FOR MANY people it is still too painful to look back at the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) but are the lessons really learnt? Perhaps it's time we revisited the three national FMD reports, of which the Royal Society report is the best and Devon County Council's stands out for its efficiency and uncompromising conclusions.

Dust them down and have another look, bearing in mind that the Government has passed the Animal Health Act 2002 to cover its tracks. If it had acted legally in 2001, why was another Animal Health Act needed?

Many of these issues were debated at a three-day conference in Manchester Town Hall - a heady mix of ideas and responses from leading vets, a law professor, artists, photographers, poets and film-makers; a rich and balanced view of the disaster we call FMD.

The keynote speaker was Dr Roger Breeze, a charming and witty Lancastrian, who from 1987 to 1995 was director of Plum Island Animal Disease Centre, Long Island, USA.

Dr Breeze is co-ordinating a linked series of laboratories across Central Asia from Ukraine through Uzbekistan to China, to track such diseases as bird flu and FMD.

These also keep track of Russia's decaying arsenal of biological weapons and employ local scientists in case their knowledge might fall into "enemy" hands.

Hearing someone of that calibre talk, you quickly realise that your own government has its head firmly in the sand, ostrich-mode.

Research at Plum Island is often streets ahead. The institute has the tests to tell whether an animal has FMD; this can be done with a portable machine and it takes 45 minutes' real time on a laptop. These are accurate tests that differentiate between true carriers and vaccinated animals for a whole range of diseases. The scientists there have also developed technology to store embryos and semen from infected animals, thus circumventing the great loss of genetic material from pedigree herds.

The cost of using these techniques in a future outbreak combined with vaccination is a fraction of the cost of the 2001 FMD bill. You would have thought Gordon Brown would be delighted. Alas, this Government clings to the contiguous cull policy like a medieval saint clings to his rosary as he is burnt at the stake.

Overwhelming evidence of unnecessary slaughter was presented by other speakers.

Professor Sheila Crispin of Bristol University was deeply concerned about the 2002 Animal Health Act because it gives the Government far greater powers to kill your livestock and pets. She was appalled that the financial mismanagement of the FMD epidemic was no longer being investigated by the National Audit Office - the estimated overall cost of the 2001 FMD outbreak was about #8 billion.

Professor David Campbell of Durham University was equally concerned by the illegal interpretation of the then existing legislation by Maff to conduct the contiguous cull. As always the Government under-reacted, then over-reacted, then pretended nothing was wrong, conducted its own very narrow inquiry, patted itself on the back, then changed the name of Maff to Defra, rather like renaming Windscale Sellafield, hoping nobody would notice. Yes, Minister. No, Minister.

More damning evidence came from leading vets and virologists. Dr Peter Nettleton, from the Moredun Research Institute, and Dr Michael Thrusfield, from the University of Edinburgh, both gave eloquent and detailed papers showing the mathematical modelling was flawed.

Suffice it to say there was no veterinary input into the mathematical model, which was devised by the team at Imperial College that drove the contiguous cull strategy. Subsequent field research has revealed this to be worthless.

In this model the focus of an infected premises was taken as the farmhouse, regardless of the location of animals. Local conditions were not taken into consideration.

Pigs, cattle and sheep vary enormously in their susceptibility to FMD, and in the amount of virus they produce. In 2001, airborne transmission was very limited; only 5 per cent of the contiguous premises were affected by direct animal contact, and it is now known that the epidemic was brought under control at least a week before the automatic contiguous cull was adopted.

In March 2001 the Government's chief scientist, Professor David King, who had no veterinary experience, predicted a doomsday scenario. The Government's chief vet, Jim Scudamore, was sidelined, Tony Blair took personal charge and Brigadier Birtwhistle came riding into Cumbria on his white charger brandishing mobile phones, Yellow Pages and a limitless budget.

Models are theories, not facts. The real mathematical modelling the Government should be doing is Catastrophe Theory, which looks at the probability of a catastrophe occurring.

We studied it in the 1970s as part of a civil engineering degree in Bristol. Given the draconian powers in the 2002 Animal Health Act and the Government's propensity to ignore high-level professional advice as it did in compiling the dodgy dossier, you have a recipe for disaster: Iraq, bird flu - whatever next?

Shades of Ibsen and his play An Enemy of the People spring to mind. Animal Farm. Spin and swill, a heady mixture.

Our Government must take a much more responsible attitude to international biosecurity. Food, like water and oil, is a finite resource. The Government's ultimate responsibility to its people is to provide food and farming security. If the US can set up a state-of-the-art early warning system in Uzbekistan why can't we do it here?

If the Government so blatantly ignores expert advice on such important matters then its days are, I hope, well and truly numbered, loans or no loans.

Perhaps it is worth remembering that the suicide rate of vets is now nearly four times the national average, and that of farmers close behind.

James Crowden and photographer Chris Chapman observed the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak at first hand, as shown in their book Silence at Ramscliffe - an account of a contiguous cull on a farm near Beaford.