17 August 2001

Enormity of the task puts paid to hopes of quiet retirement

SIR Brian Follett knew the enormity of the task as soon as he put down the phone at his daughters house in Canada.

His summer holiday was effectively over. Acting on instructions from Downing Street, a government official had just asked Sir Brian to chair an inquiry into the scientific aspects of foot-and-mouth disease. Any thoughts the former university vice-chancellor had of a quiet life after his retirement four months ago vanished.

Speaking this week to farmers weekly, Sir Brian revealed that his inquiry will consider whether the UK should abandon its slaughter policy against F&M and routinely vaccinate livestock against the disease. "The inquiry will look at all the implications of routine vaccination as a policy," he said.

Such a proposal will face stiff opposition from many farmers. But Sir Brian said he will relish the challenge of conducting the inquiry. "I come into this humbly and will be rigorous in my approach. It is a huge responsibility because out there lies a whole industry that has had a very serious blow and needs answers."

The cost and efficiency of vaccination will be considered in the context of livestock exports, import controls and the UKs susceptibility to diseases from abroad. Sir Brian said: "One has to at least beg the question about whether it wise to leave animals unvaccinated when you look at the terrible suffering this disease has caused."

The inquiry will also consider how to avoid a repeat of the rapid, undetected spread of F&M in sheep. Sir Brian believes that the government must take advantage of the latest technology, such as hand-held F&M testing devices developed in the US, but not used in the UK outbreak.

An inquiry team of about 12 people will include veterinary scientists, virologists, epidemiologists, as well as farming and consumer representatives. Some hearings will be held in public and evidence published on the internet.

Sir Brian, who was elected to the Royal Society in 1984 and knighted in 1992, has already compiled a number of government reports on issues ranging from the Alder Hey hospital organs scandal to university libraries. "I have a long track record of my reports being acted upon," he said.

He believes this is why he was chosen for the role, combined with a prestigious academic background in zoology. "I am reasonably close to the chosen area but not wedded to any treatments or solutions," he said. "The government wants to see whether procedures now in place are appropriate for the 21st century."

Sir Brian believes the key to getting recommendations implemented is to ensure they are socially, economically and legally acceptable, as well as scientifically sound. He said: "The question is whether or not society in Britain is ready for the implications of change and, indeed, the implications of no change." &#42

Alistair Driver

Royal Society Inquiry into Livestock Diseases

Chairman: Sir Brian Follett

Terms of Reference: Will review the scientific questions relating to the transmission, prevention and control of epidemic outbreaks of infectious disease in livestock. To take into account risk from worldwide diseases and the adequacy of preventative measures, including vaccination. Will also look at current state of technology and livestock practices.

Timetable: To make recommendations by summer 2002.