24 August 2001

Chief vet who shunned the Army

A FEW months ago, chief veterinary officer Jim Scudamore addressed journalists at Carlisle – just yards from one of the biggest livestock sale rings in Europe.

Foot-and-mouth was at its peak and MAFF was struggling hopelessly. Facing a battery of TV cameras, Mr Scudamore was asked why the Army had not been brought in to help control the outbreak. Cool and unflustered, he succinctly explained the governments position. The Army had many skills, but none were needed, he told reporters.

Everyone here in Cumbria knew that bringing in the Army was the only option left. But Mr Scudamore calmly refused to accept that MAFFs regional office needed help. His defiant refusal to acknowledge the severity of the epidemic – and Tony Blairs blind commitment to playing down the crisis – decimated livestock farming and blew apart the rural economy.

That press conference, one month into the epidemic, was designed to present the "official" face of the government. Mr Scudamore had a job to do and he stuck to his brief. But on the train back to London it was a different story. Privately, he told civil servants, he was shocked at what he had seen and heard.

Mr Scudamore may not have had the easiest ride over F&M. It was clearly obvious to him as a vet what really needed to be done. He knew the government was underestimating the scale of the outbreak and he knew ministers had foolishly left a national emergency in the hands of a regional MAFF office.

We will never really know what Mr Scudamore told the Prime Minister when he returned to London. But by early April the first Army trucks were lumbering into the countryside. They are still here to this day. In nearby Lancs, farmers continue to count the cost of one of the most severe disease clusters.

Six months on and the scars refuse to heal. Its going to take far more than a recovery plan from Lord Haskins to put it right. The hot-spot around Penrith has dealt a devastating blow to a county that has suffered enough. But no one is interested in blame anymore. Farming just wants to get back to normal.

It isnt a lot to ask. But farmers are past masters at coping with false dawns. Where the smell of bloom dip should be lingering in the fields as tens of thousands of Mule gimmer lambs are prepared for sale, now there is only the smell of disinfectant. Everything is still and everyone is still waiting.


Cases to date 927

First case Feb 28 (Cumbria)

Last case Aug 20 (Cumbria)

Max daily cases 33 on Mar 30

Source: DEFRA. Position at 17.00 Aug 20.