The return of foot and mouth disease to Surrey has “baffled” ministers and provoked the usual reaction from the so-called National Farmers Union. (It’s not a union – but a producer cartel.) The new prime minister is clueless. The title of this blog announces why I must return to this subject.
Witless ministers today profess themselves incapable of understanding why the disease has come back just one day after they officially announced it was beaten!
“Baffled” says tonight’s Evening Standard. “Puzzled” admits the Environment Secretary responsible for animal health Hilary Benn, who graduated from Sussex in Russian and East European Studies and has the massive experience of having been in his job since June. The NFU’s president Peter Kendall sounds just like all previous NFU presidents and has demanded once again that the disease be “stamped out” (this being NFU/Defra code for slaughtering healthy animals, with full compensation paid by everyone else).*
Predictably, sticking to the script, slaughter “on suspicion” has already resumed. Why not slaughter pensioners with influenza? Oddly, this is the same government that offers flu vaccine, on the NHS. Like a broken record, our beloved Prime Minister Brown is promising to eliminate the disease. Just as he promised last time! The V word does not pass his lips.
Once again, those of us who have since the 2001 débâcle been demanding vaccination have been ignored. Once again, we have been proved right. Had Defra ring vaccinated immediately following the original outbreak this summer, the cows now infected in the shadow of Windsor Castle would not be infected. I told you so. By not vaccinating now they are making themselves look like idiots.
Nothing is very complicated here. The disease is back because ministers are scientifically illiterate and because Defra and the NFU, led by the glamorous film star turned hapless chief vet Debbie Reynolds, despite their proven track record of failure, remain firmly in control.
One needs hardly to be reminded that the latest outbreak like the one that proceeded it originated with the escape of the virus from a government laboratory with collapsing toxic drains that nobody could organise themselves to repair and lorry loads of contaminated spoil being trucked off the site in all directions.
God forbid this is the standard of biosecurity prevailing elsewhere on the government’s biochemical estate.
For anyone who still fails to understand the absurdity of this, I recommend Abigail Wood’s book, A Manufactured Plague.
Abigail’s book questions how foot and mouth came to be seen as one of the world’s worst animal plagues, although it poses little threat to human health (although in the UK without much doubt it seriously affects human mental health and has a negative human impact in many other ways). She asks why, in the epidemic of 2001, the government’s control strategy still relied on Victorian trade restrictions and mass slaughter. Her book is brilliant.
Abigail shows that for more than a century foot and mouth has brought fear, tragedy and sorrow – damaging businesses and affecting international relations. Yet these effects were neither inevitable nor caused by foot and mouth itself but were, rather, the product of the legislation used to control it, and so in this sense foot and mouth is a ‘manufactured’ plague rather than a natural one.
Abigail, like the rest of us, has been ignored. The NFU, which defends the exports of its members no matter how many billions it costs the rest of us, meanwhile retains statutory rights of consultation (in effect, so far, a veto) over government policy. Foot and Mouth has cost the country between £10 billion and £20 billion since 2001 in order to protect a trade worth a tiny fraction of this sum. Has our government, has the prime minister, the intelligence to do a simple cost-benefit calculation? This is madness.
The only good news is that the Queen’s pad at Windsor is in the middle of the control zone. She’s a countrywoman at heart. Maybe she could have a word with Mr Brown and tell him to stop his ministers and their officials acting like such stupid cows. Go for it ma’am – we peasants are depending on you.
Warmwell remains the indispensible source for hour-to-hour developments.
The estimable Matthew Weaver’s FMD blog is back in The Guardian.
Sheepdrove’s blog is also indispensible.
* This looks encouragingly like a potentially serious crisis for the NFU (known in my manor as “no fucking use”) whose traditional “line to take” is now out of step even amongst the growing disgruntled “members” of the NFU. There are numerous successful and humane British farmers (such as Sheepdrove) who are loudly pointing out that they also have rights, including the right to compete in the market if necessary with vaccinated meat. It must be asked – if we have to have a row with the EU, so what? In the meantime the NFU is dangerously exposed and revealed as the emperor with no clothes. Farmers are now really stuck and it is largely because the NFU has colluded in an antediluvian policy. Even the farmers who once towed the NFU line on vaccination have grown curiously silent.
Stop press: Friday morning, 14 September: It would be odd if we were about to win but the odds just increased a little bit, although they are still very long against us, Mary and I feel. We also think we are being read in Whitehall and the news offices and are starting to make a difference. I get the same feeling. I am still worried Defra might try to sabotage a vaccine trial.
Happier days at Pirbright: The Surrey County Vaccine Farms
The 10 top things about FMD 2007.
10. Never mind the disinfectant, send the whitewash. A dramatic improvement in government media/presentational skill, mirrored by no raising of the game by editors, compared to 2001. See 8, 7 below.
9. Scientists are often psychotic, in the clinical sense meaning they have lost touch with reality. Any reality. Ground reality. System reality. Media reality. The award goes to Sir Brian Follett for his sagacity in the Sunday Times: “The reason we slaughter animals is because, in island countries, it works. We can keep the virus out.” A healthy debate in the bioscience community about vaccination would be welcome but it is so odd that those who obstruct vaccinations use arguments that are simply ludicrous and false.
8. Journalism in Britain is quite dramatically terrible as anyone can tell you when they observe the coverage of something they know plenty about. The absence of scientifically trained journalists is very apparent as it was in 2001. Rolling news channels by far the worst – torrents of drivel, 24 by 7. This is the syndrome that we saw with the media in the run-up to the war in Iraq. A dependence on authority to timetable events and establish the agenda, ignoring all contrary evidence or burying it on page 94. The BBC is consistently mediocre.
7. The media tropes are identical. Terrible disease. Tragedy for farmers. A threatened cow named Mabel in a petting zoo. The editors cover every big story by habit. This is why they prefer stories that “come back” so they can order the clips and cover them like last time. A dirty media secret is that editors do not like anything too new – they don’t understand it and have no precedent to inform their decisions.
6. Mediocrity of civil service. By which I mean the the glamorous chief vet who frankly wasn’t that hot, though she will now get a K. Not as sinister as Scudamore but she did everything she could to keep the approach NFU friendly, and I predict the vaccination kits will not be used. She pretended vaccination is an option while never intending to use it unless someone put a bullet to her head. So far, she’s got away with it. I think it’s a cynical tactic. I exempt the local field Defra office in Surrey who have distiguished themselves by being actually human. It has been my own experience as the owner of a registered farm (currently on the very edge of the surveillance zone) that the worker bees at the local Defra office do try to be helpful, despite the insane orders they receive from headquarters.
5. NFU more digusting than ever and why they are taken seriously is a disease of public policy. Literally. The government is required to consult them under a 1947 Act passed by a Labour government that idiotically thought they were empowering a union. What we have, despite recent reforms, is a monster in which not all members even get to vote, and the last five bosses have been knighted. This is a corrupt relationship in the sense of mordant decay. It produces terrible public policy. They are so unbelievably slippery and unconvincing. They are probably reading this wondering whether to sue me but some one is reminding them of MacDonalds.
4. Internet has dramatically improved networking and communications for us “troublemakers” who object that government policy is unscientific, brutal and disgusting. But while the networks are activating quickly, frankly we lack real political clout. We do not have a clunking great fist. The challenge is to convert our command of the facts and superb intelligence into meaningful pressure. I admit this is a tough problem when our democracy is so intangible, and note that it is a problem not unique to this issue.
3. This time around there is some interesting potential for lawyers. I imagine there are going to be some rewarding issues of liability and indemnity to fight about. This will pay for some very beautiful houses in France and a lot of very good claret.
2. Pirbright should be closed and the entire operation moved to a rocky island off Scotland, preferably.
1. Gordon Brown has been bloody lucky. So far.
This is my best guess at the moment. If the outbreak gets much worse then this list becomes inoperative, of course, and I will have to do it over.
I fear that one of Surrey’s finest herds of cattle is currently being exterminated. The herd of Aberdeen Angus has a distinguished pedigree but yesterday a couple of heifers seemed to have minor symptoms of lameness and the response seems to have been to kill them all. (I hope I am wrong and am doing more checks – but it is confirmed that they are killing more animals.)
Update: The herd being culled has been identified and is not the one I initially feared. More on this later. I still inclined to the view that this outbreak can be contained – but only if the government acts now to deploy its most effective weapon.
Waiting for animals to develop symptoms and then killing them is less effective as a means of preventing the spread of this illness than immediately ring vaccinating the affected area. The Dutch know this. The immunologists know it. It is rejected in Britain by a producer’s cartel who have created a situation where the taxpayer indemnifies them for their business risks and mass slaughter of healthy animals for cash is the raison d’etre of their business.
If the government will kill all the animals and pay for them then it saves all the costly business of feeding the beasts and selling them on the open market. Never mind that some do not want their animals killed, because they are used for milking, or for smaller-scale production aimed at local markets. Or that most of the animals killed are healthy. Or that even animals with foot and mouth can make full recoveries. Or that it is safe to eat vaccinated meat. And that tests can distinguish vaccinated animals from diseased ones.
In Britain this cartel is represented by the ill-named National Farmers Union which is not a union but an annex of the still deeply sinister Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This perverse relationship has profoundly damaged the British countryside in the past and threatens to do so again.
The NFU agribusiness cartel spent yesterday demanding slaughter using the code words “stamping out” to describe taking healthy animals and killing them in a field, a process to be followed by the dispatch of large checks. And the horror is that once again the NFU is getting what it wants, popping in to Downing Street, appearing next to the chief vet at Defra news conferences, and being treated by 95% of our moronic media as the only authentic spokesman for the countryside.
So, we are back to slaughter on suspicion and the killing of dangerous contacts. No disease even needs to be proven. And the indicators of scandal continue to shoot into the red zone.
There turns out to be a history of biosecurity failures at Pirbright. The place is falling apart and a hugely expensive refurbishment project is supposed to be starting now. Yet only now is a serious independent examination getting underway of the biosecurity at Pirbright.
Oddly, this strategic national laboratory seems to exist without the slightest oversight by anyone, as far as I can tell. I doubt that Waverley borough council has a clue how to regulate class 4 biosecurity laboratories. This statement is not correct. As a later story makes more precise, Defra seems to be responsible for some of this and the HSE for other parts. It is still rather opaque how this surveillance has worked in practice and the evidence suggests it has not worked at all.
It seems that Pirbright have just received planning permission for all sorts of schemes but none of this has been covered in the Surrey Advertiser as far as I can tell, nor would it be, it not being the dream of estate agents to sell costly mansions on the doorstep of a hazardous biochemical research park.
So here we are and after years of arguing for a scientific approach to disease rather than a commercial one in which an illness is elevated to an economic crisis, the situation is the perfect scenario for vaccination. The specific virus is known. The vaccine is in stock. There is currently just one cluster of disease hence a ring vaccination scheme can be implemented with high confidence.
Not vaccinating is more than negligent it is stupid and vastly increases the chance this disease will spread. I suppose the NFU doesn’t really care because the suits who run it will just get more and bigger checks, and they never see the animals, anyway. I sggest that an NFU “member” who disagrees open his books.
Small farmers are ignored by the NFU (although it takes their money, persuading them by its clever marketing that it is an authentic countryside voice.) But of course these “country” members are entirely unrepresented when it comes to the big decisions.)
The stupidity of journalists like the one on CNN yesterday who repeated the lie that vaccination hides the disease is very probably attributable to the mendacious briefings offered by the government, the NFU and the NFU thugs and fellow-travellers who control certain Internet news groups (such as U.K. Business Agriculture, the nastiest place on the net).
These people conceal their real interests and character-assassinate those who have advocated putting a scientific approach ahead of the compensation cheques. It is a scandal that farmers get compensated for illness. Nobody else does. It is a scandal that the NFU has exercised a veto on policy. It is a tragedy that Gordon Brown cannot see any of this. You do not need to be a vegetarian to know that killing a child’s healthy pet goat is wrong. Or that individuals should have the right to choose vaccination for their own animals, in preference to a disgusting policy of exterminating precious animals, domestic or commercial, on the whim of some vet (another unjustly deified profession).
The entire annual meat export trade is worth less than one block trade in the city of London. British agribusiness, such as it is, is actually pretty feeble, and pretty often vile (who is for a Turkey from one of Bernard Matthew’s sheds?) When are we going to get real about agriculture and stop allowing privileged producers to raid the Treasury?
I live in the country and drink at the pub with people who farm. We are making hay in our meadows right now. Many of these farmers are friends. But I don’t ask them to send me a cheque when I have writer’s block. If they are worried about foot and mouth they should buy insurance, or vaccinate. Why is this a problem?
The calculation of ministers, armed with their new media skills, is that what the public doesn’t see, will not upset them. Hence the rush to keep the helicopters out of the sky. The BBC and Sky news had already self-censored the most graphic images of the last slaughter in which the Woolford cattle were shot down side-by-side, one by one in a makeshift pen. The cowardice, ineptitude and ignorance of the 24-hour news channels is a subject for continuing discussion. A hare-brained blonde on Sky explained they had censored their pictures to spare us distress. This, apparently, is news judgement at Sky – we will not be shown the truth, so that we may be spared distress. Only journalism rivals politics for its hypocrisy.
Anyway – no danger the viewers shall be distressed, the new air exclusion zone means all further images will be censored.
I am still somewhat confident this outbreak may be limited in size – even though there are serious questions when it really started. In a report on the OIE site the glamorous Debby Reynolds has apparently reported that the “Start date” was 29/07/2007. The 29th of July? But that was the Saturday before the Thursday evening when “symptoms were reported to the local Animal Health office”.
“Is this a mistake – or were symptoms actually noticed five days earlier? It matters,” notes the always on-target Warmwell, another battle-scared veteran of 2001!
The government is running out of time to show they have really learned any lessons from 2001.
Notably, Abigail Woods, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Imperial who was brilliant in 2001 at exposing the lies of the NFU and their lackeys, has returned to the fray in today’s Guardian, here.
I was travelling today and am now returned. I hear Sky News has once again covered itself in shit. The problem with Murdoch’s media is not their transparent self-interest but their mediocrity.
Check frequently with Warmwell for news updates.
Excellent Guardian FMD blog here run by Matthew Weaver, journo who may just “get it”. Matthew is doing a great job tracking the news. Indispensible.
One thing definitely upgraded since the 2001 FMD disaster is the government’s management of information. A good thing for them because the disclosure that the current FMD epizootic could be “made in Whitehall” ought to be a considerable scandal and probably would be if the hacks were not so dense. As in 2001 the best information is not coming from the mainstream media but the bloggers of which Warmwell is the gold standard.
On Sunday we had a choreographed series of news conferences in which the hand of synchronity was readily discernable. The prime minister himself – caring and serious, doing everything possible, stressing the countryside was still open. So that’s all right, then.
The Institute for Animal Health was the first to come out pointing the finger. I think they may have been represented by Gene Kelly, in his softest shuffling shoes. I do not claim to understand this outfit. They may or may not be responsible for Pirbright, it is hard to tell. I confess I am not even clear who owns the freehold, who has the licences, or who issues them. Anyway, they are the first, emerging to say they are cooperating with the government but that their biosecurity is flawless. As even the hacks could figure, this implicity points the finger at Merial Animal Health. Merial has a lab at Pirbright but the relationship with the Institute remains opaque.
So Merial sends a spokesman, a Mr Donald O’Connor, of fancy footwork, to say that they are cooperating with the government too and their biosecurity is also flawless. Or maybe this was Homer Simpson. One could say he is dancing to the suggestion that the virus could have escaped from the next-door Nissen hut. This could be construed as pointing an implicit finger at the Institute. But Merial is the obvious fall-guy, guilty or not. Whitehall was already briefing on Sunday night that Merial is their prime suspect. There is a suggestion that investigators may have identified an individual as a vector of contact. Stay tuned.
This was a shameful moment for Sky and the BBC live from the scene whose reporters were professionally raped by Merial. What is the point of satellite uplink trucks if your reporters are zombies? No questions were permitted of Merial, despite their status as prime suspect! This is news management at the logical extreme – the journalists are treated simply as conduits. Reporters should have protested and physically obstructed the Merial executive from leaving without answering any. But the days of real journalism are long gone.
Then the chief vet, the glamorous former Hollywood star Debby Reynolds appeared, telling us that more animals were being killed and that it was too soon to judge the cause of the outbreak. This is of course ridiculous in that it is obvious the cause of the outbreak was a biosecurity failure at Pirbright, even if the specific vector is not yet told us. The question is: what is and has really been going on at Pirbright? If the questions are being asked at all, they are not being answered in public.
Can someone help me on the history, please? Am I wrong that Pirbright was once a MAFF research station? What exactly has happened recently or is it a longstanding arrangement that this collection of not quite Nissen huts on the Hog’s Back (irony) has become some kind of public-private virus campus? Does anyone know or care what is in fact the nature of the science happening at this place? Should it be there at all? It has London at its front door and the countryside in the back garden. It sounds like a Michael Crichton novel waiting to happen. Except it has already happened. Is this where we want to create our virus pole? I do not recall anyone being asked.
Whether or not the government’s administration, strategy and delivery on animal health are much better this time around than in 2001 remains to be seen. Disregarding that the outbreak started at a quasi non governmental complex. They have been oddly lucky this time – I don’t think there is much evidence of movement and none so far of spread. I will already concede they have been a little less dreadful than last time. La Reynolds is certainly an improvement on the sinister Mr Scudamore. But the NFU still seems to retain a veto on policy. Why can’t ministers see through this cartel? Is it because it claims to be a union, and appeals to some left-over leftish nostalgia among our “Labour” rulers? Ministers must know that the NFU’s purpose is to drain the treasury. It’s as democratic as the Soviet Union (using a remarkably similar voting system). That’s all.
If you look at Pirbright on Google earth it is a mess and who can tell whose lab belongs to who? The Tories may be on to something if they start sniffing for maladministration. It seems certain money has a part to play in this, and the desire of the government to spend less. The government real-terms cutback on animal health seems to have coincided with its outsourcing to an animal health quango. Is this part of the government or not? Yes – and no. It seems sure that conflicts of interest are built in.
We need to know much, much more about Pirbright. It seems clear there were warnings – ignored – of an inherently unsatisfactory biosecurity environment. There seem to me also some commercial questions to consider and whether there is a conflict between commercial activities and government research labs sharing the same site, when that site is well known to be largely obsolete and is poorly located for the work it does.
I do not know but I am not clear that it is comfortable that the Institute is seeking contracts on its own account while apparently simultaneously making facilities available to private companies such as Merial. What exactly are these relationships? All these contracts are doubtless marked “commercially confidential”. They will not want us to know.
The real danger of FMD is that it provokes mad administration syndrome, in which vast sums of money are spent protecting people who are grown up and should look after themselves. Nobody else is compensated like these big commercial farmers. Make no mistake. This is agribusiness. FMD and our response to it are the product of a diseased agricultural economy, in which European policy plays a part but Britain’s unique talent for maladministration makes everything worse.
The evil NFU plays a malign continuing influence and it is a subsidiary scandal that the media continues to treat them as a legitimate authority without pointing out the commercial interests of the people who run this organisation. Gordon Brown should ask himself why the government uniquely compensates the NFU’s members for business risk, and nobody else (except arms dealers). Farmers should insure themselves for epizootic risks, and the government should allow those who wish to innoculate their animals to do so.
Oversight and accountability are not features of the British political process and there will be less than ever now the government has mastered the tricks of concealing information and most of the media has given up looking beyond the official sources.
My neighbours are furious. The single word reaction of one of them last night, when I encountered him after making silage, was: “Bastards.” This is a widely held view. No matter how often the gorgeous Debby Reynolds bats her eyelashes.
In my neigbhborhood, which remains 5km from the surveillance zone, the initials NFU have long been widely regarded to stand for No Fucking Use. Click here for excellent (if now slightly dated) report on the NFU.
I am amused to discover that the search term “virus escape” generates 2,290,000 “hits” on Google.
Magnus Luinklater who was magnificent in 2001 is on top-form in The Times today. He is a solid writer.
Many of my old allies and friends from 2001 are returning to the radar screen. Warmwell, one of the best is here.
Update: I am now 2km from the edge of the surveillance zone.
STOP PRESS (10pm): IT IS NOW ALMOST CERTAIN THAT THE VIRUS CAME FROM PIRBRIGHT.
It is a virus strain consistent with that found in laboratories, Defra says. A new exclusion zone includes Pirbright. The story is moving fast. But this disaster almost certainly originated in the government’s own FMD laboratory.
The Pirbright Laboratory of the Institute of Animal Health is the leading suspect as the source of the virus in UK’s ongoing FMD outbreak. The IAH is a quango sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It’s “clients” include Defra, the Department of Health, the Department of International Development, and a number of international organisations. Biohazardous research and training is commonly performed at Pirbright including a diagnostics course 16 – 27 of April 2007 including ample receipt and preparation for FMD virus/antigen/genome detection; use of cell cultures for FMD virus isolation; ELISA for FMD virus antigen detection; preparation of primary calf thyroid cells for use in diagnosis; RT-PCR for FMD virus genome detection; FMD virus antibody detection by liquid phase blocking ELISA, solid phase blocking ELISA, virus neutralisation test and Cedi test FMD virus strain characterisation.
The laboratory is practically adjacent to the infected premises in the current outbreak and inside the 10km surveillance zone.
According to route mapping software the distance by road is 8.5km but as the crow flies it is closer to 5km. The Pirbright lab is somewhat south of Pirbright so the distance may be even closer.
If confirmed as the source this would represent a disastrous biosecurity breech by the government’s leading epizootic research establishment.
The laboratory is a world reference centre for and has major responsibilities to the Office International des Épizooties (OIE) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) for the diagnosis of diseases in an emergency. The diagnostic services are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The list of diseases for which diagnostic services are provided includes FMD and it is known that all known strains of FMD are held at Pirbright on a reference basis.
Here are two more questions: (1) If there has been a biosecurity breech was it deliberate or a mistake? (2) Given that FMD has long been considered a potential biological weapon, are the police involved in the investigation at Pirbright? (If not, why not?) The refusal to state the viral strain implicated does not bode well for official transparency.