Mean fields: foot & mouth redux
STOP PRESS 1: Defra Chief Vet Debby Reynolds (!) said at a press conference just concluded that she has asked Defra’s own Pirbright FMD lab in Surrey to review its biosecurity arrangements! This is a most peculiar disclosure and implies suspicion that virus in Surrey outbreak may have escaped from Defra’s own lab! It is evident that journalists at this press conference were the same clueless zombies who covered this so badly last time.
STOP PRESS 2: At same Defra press conference the malign continuing influence of the NFU was cleary demonstrated. An NFU spokesman was permitted to share the podium with the chief vet and spout NFU propaganda but of course there were no representatives from the very large rural interests not represented by the NFU. This is a very bad sign. NFU has an economic interest in slaughter. Note to Gordon Brown: these guys are NOT your friends. Cut them off at the knees.
QUESTION RAISED ANEW BY (1) above: What is the FMD virus strain? Why are we not told? They have had plenty of time to determine this. Could it be this is a strain currently found only at Pirbright? Or not so bright…
INTERESTING FACT: Distance from infected premises to Pirbright: 5km. Now isn’t that one hell of a coincidence?
The last time foot and mouth disease swept the country in 2001 it triggered mendacity, stupidity, senseless waste and venality that it is painful to recall. The big beef farmers represented by the NFU wept crocodile tears as their herds were slaughtered and subsequently cashed compensation cheques for millions of pounds.
The government response was a shambles. The vets ignored their professional oath and slaughtered animals they knew to be healthy. Animals were seized for slaughter despite this being clearly illegal. (The government later changed the law and now the vets can kill whatever they want, whether it is diseased or not.) Hefted sheep and pet goats – all were killed although they were perfectly healthy.
With the Prince of Wales berating him (pace Alastair Campbell) Tony Blair rushed to take personal command of the situation but not for the last time, found that the levers of power he imagined to exist in Downing Street are not actually connected to much.
In the Sunday Times I revealed in the first week that foot and mouth is not a serious disease and that animals that catch it usually recover. The disease is easily controlled using vaccines that are cheap and easy to administer. I interviewed the minister in charge of what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, finding an amiable buffoon named Nick Brown, who was shortly afterwards demoted.
I discovered that there was no serious foot and mouth contingency plan although in North America vets and agriculture officials rehearse epizootics constantly.
The ministry was seized with a mentality that seemed grounded in the digging for victory schemes of World War 2. Modern science played no part in the ministry’s ideology to “stamp out” this benign disease by means of an unimaginably destructive, environmentally disgusting and costly policy of mass slaughter.
These reports in The Sunday Times stirred a tidal wave of opposition to the slaughters and it was also one of the first mass uses of the Internet in Britain to rally opposition to a government policy. Tony Blair was even forced to delay elections. The fury and authority of the opposition subsequently resulted in the ministry being closed down, although much of it was unfortunately reborn within the new Department of Farming and Rural Affairs.
The ultimate cost of this wretched affair was, I estimate, £20 billion; the government figure of a mere £8.5 billion doesn’t count the collateral damage to tourism and the rural economy.
This was supposedly justified because somehow the expense was necessary to protect Britain’s vital stake in the meat export trade, although this is worth perhaps worth 1 per cent of this sum. I hope Gordon Brown will not permit a repeat of this exercise in which NFU members looted the treasury while the countryside was shut down.
One can pray that the government has learned its lessons from last time. The new chief vet, Debby Reynolds, presumably no relation, seems possibly more sensible that the primitives in charge last time. But Defra is still hopeless as its £450million cock-up of the single farm payments scheme proved (the author of this, Margaret Beckett, was subsequently promoted by Tony Blair to be his last, improbable, foreign secretary.)
We now need evidence that Defra has learned its lessons. The initial signs are mixed. Defra at least seems to be working this weekend. But we still need to know more about what is going on. Worst of all, we really do not know Defra’s policy. There are worrying signs it is still inclined to killing everything in sight, and not inclined to recognise that the science of immunisation has moved on, since 1929.
I am now 4 km from the edge of the surveillance zone in Surrey and the countryside here is covered in cattle and sheep. Why are these animals not being vaccinated?
Chief vet Debby Reynolds (I think)