30 November 2001

Time for the truth on F&M

ANYONE not associated with the farming industry or directly affected by the foot-and-mouth epidemic, which has ravaged the UK for the past nine months, may be forgiven for thinking all is now well.

Arguably more important events have occupied the media, namely the terrorist attacks in the USA on Sept 11 and the conflict in Afghanistan.

But for those people living and working in the F&M hotspot areas, the outbreak is still at the forefront of their minds. Indeed, there is not a livestock farmer in the country who has not experienced the Draconian animal movement restrictions imposed by DEFRA plus the cost and inconvenience of biosecurity measures.

The F&M outbreak of 2001 was allowed to escalate into the worst epidemic of this disease the world has ever seen. It was also one of the greatest social and financial disasters to hit this country in peace time.

So, why has this government not ordered an independent public enquiry when many other less serious events have justified one? Surely, there can be few tragedies that have touched so many lives with such dire consequences and at such phenomenal cost to taxpayers.

farmers weekly, in conjunction with Horse and Hound and three big regional newspapers ran a campaign to persuade our Prime Minister to change his mind. Between them they have collected 101,000 signatures for dispatch to 10 Downing Street backing up their campaign.

Truth campaign

A further petition, entitled The Foot-and-Mouth Truth Campaign, conceived by Lady Apsley and Bill Cash MP, has also been circulating widely and will be sent to Parliament later this month. If that carries sufficient signatures the government will be forced to act.

I have supported both these petitions and hope they are successful. But I cannot help thinking that it is feet marching down Whitehall that may win the day rather than pieces of paper.

My wife spotted an advertisement in farmers weekly recently promoting a special investigation from Private Eye entitled "Not the foot-and-mouth report". As an occasional reader of the Eye, she took little persuasion in buying a copy. Having read it in one sitting she recommended that I read it too.

The author is Christopher Booker, who has a column in The Sunday Telegraph and also writes for Private Eye and the Daily Mail, with research by Richard North, an expert in epidemiology on zoonotic and food-borne diseases.

The result of their efforts makes compulsive reading and I commend it to everyone. As a piece of investigative journalism, it is well written and outspoken and for those who are familiar with both Mr Booker and Dr North it will come as no surprise to learn that Brussels and the EU do not come out of this too well.

But it is Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his government, according to this report who must bear the brunt of the criticism. Do we know how, where or when the outbreak began and why was the Northumberland report, written after the last epidemic in 1967/8, ignored?

Costly delays

Early mismanagement by government resulted in costly delays in slaughter and disposal and alleged breaches of biosecurity led to the further spread of the disease by MAFF employees.

The bizarre appointment of scientists to head the fight against F&M who had no experience of animal diseases, led to the highly questionable contiguous cull policy, which was both scientifically flawed and probably illegal, says Mr Booker.

The failure to take on board the views of world experts on F&M and the dismissal of a vaccination programme, was surrounded by misinformation and misunderstanding and showed the Prime Minister to be both weak and indecisive. False propaganda and the distortion of both the facts and the figures abounded as the general election of June 7 approached.

But what also came to light was the flagrant disregard of animal welfare regulations by government officials which, if carried out by farmers, would most definitely have landed them in court.

Then came the leaks to the media from government sources concerning lax farmer biosecurity and the "compensation millionaires" all designed to taint the industry in the eyes of the public.

At the end of it all with so many questions left unanswered and so much to be accounted for, Mr Blair announced that there were to be three enquiries, not independent and not to be heard in public. Sir Don Curry, Sir Brian Follett and Ian Anderson were to preside over a series of toothless investigations on the future of British farming; the future handling of animal diseases and the governments administrative handling of the crisis! No doubt the last mentioned will attempt to explain why the Treasury had parted with £2.5bn of taxpayers money to kill and dispose of 7.7m farm animals.

If you are interested in reading the Not the Foot-and-Mouth Report, which costs £1.50, phone 020-7228 6457 or 020-7738 1249. &#42

No livestock farms have escaped the impact of the foot-and-mouth debacle. At our Easton Lodge pig unit, manager, Jasper Renold, pictured, and farms manager, John Lambkin had to strengthen the farms already strict biosecurity arrangements. The farms wheel wash was topped up daily with fresh disinfectant, visitors banned from the farm for a time and feed lorries sprayed with a knapsack sprayer. Those actions all added to our costs, but we fully appreciate that has been a small price to pay compared with the horrendous difficulties endured by many in the hard hit areas of the UK.