12 April 2002

Blair faces more grilling

from Anderson inquiry

By Johann Tasker

TONY Blair is to face further questioning over allegations that his government mishandled last years foot-and-mouth epidemic, farmers weekly can reveal.

The Prime Minister has been asked to give evidence to the inquiry examining the lessons to be learned from the crisis within six weeks. The request was made after inquiry chairman Iain Anderson met more than 1000 people and received over 600 written submissions from farmers and rural communities affected by the disease.

Speaking exclusively to FW, Dr Anderson said he still wanted to know why the Army wasnt brought in earlier and why vaccination wasnt used to control the epidemic. Asked whether he was satisfied with the answers he had received so far, he replied: "Once I am fully satisfied then I dont have any questions left and I still have a lot of questions to ask."

After ploughing through an "avalanche" of information, Dr Anderson said he identified with people caught up in the crisis. Farmers asked "again and again" where the disease came from and how it could be prevented from recurring, he said. They wanted to know why the disease spread and also how prepared the government was for the outbreak.

Mr Blair will be among numerous ministers, former ministers and government officials who will now be quizzed over their conduct during the crisis. Dr Anderson said: "We are pursuing and will pursue with the Prime Minister and key ministers and officials all of these questions. They are laid out and all of them are on our agenda."

Dr Anderson added: "This was a completely extraordinary and possibly unprecedented event. It has caused untold hardship and anguish across the country. To tell you the truth, I guess I knew this before I started the inquiry. But you never know it quite the way you know it after speaking to 1000 people."

Despite concern that Mr Blair will give evidence behind closed doors, Dr Anderson insisted that the government had not interfered with his work. "We go where we like and ask to see who we like without interference. Every person that we want to see – the Prime Minister, ministers, officials – has agreed to our timetable."

Dr Andersons report is due to be completed by mid-summer but he warned that it would probably never be known how last years outbreak started at a pig farm in Northumberland.

"That is not so unusual," he said. "If a new outbreak of flu starts in the country you dont exactly know where it came from. So we dont know exactly and we may never know exactly how it got there." &#42