21 June 2002

Watchdog says Britains

not ready for more F&M

By Johann Tasker

URGENT action is needed because Britain is still unprepared for another foot-and-mouth outbreak, the governments financial watchdog has warned ministers.

Last years epidemic cost £8bn, reveals a National Audit Office report published today (June 21). Resources to deal with the disease rapidly spiralled beyond what was envisaged because of the unprecedented size of the outbreak, says the document. The government should be better prepared for another epidemic, it adds.

Sir John Bourn, NAO auditor general, said: "Urgent action is needed to produce contingency plans which would be more sensitive to outbreaks of different scales and thus be better suited to dealing with a future crisis on this scale. Moreover, further research must be carried out into effective measures for tackling F&M."

The report acknowledges that it is unrealistic to expect that the governments contingency plan – which met EU requirements – could have coped with all the problems and difficulties that arose from the 2001 epidemic. But it warns that future contingency plans must be able to cope with any eventuality.

Tackling a serious outbreak of animal disease requires effective co-operation between government departments and agencies and the people affected, says the document. Although some stakeholders were involved in simulation exercises on a local level before the 2001 outbreak, they were not formally consulted.

Sir John said he realised the F&M outbreak was unprecedented. But he added: "There are lessons to be learned for the whole of government from the crisis. Departments need to be aware of the major threats in their areas of business and to have contingency plans in place which conform with best practice on risk management."

Contingency plans were based on the most likely situation and the worst-case scenario was not considered, the report says. Those plans worked in areas where there were few outbreaks but failed in some of the areas worst hit by the epidemic. More consideration could have been given to vaccination, it adds.

The report says the impact of a large-scale F&M outbreak on non-farming enterprises, such as tourist businesses, was not addressed in contingency plans. Furthermore, existing contingency plans need to be substantially revised and tested regularly on a national and local level to deal with a future outbreak.

An internal report in 1999 found considerable variations in the State Veterinary Services readiness to deal with outbreaks of exotic notifiable diseases, including F&M. Six months into the crisis, DEFRA had made progress on many areas but the implementation of some key issues was delayed by other high-priority work.

DEFRA has now embarked on a series of actions in response to many of the issues identified by the report. These will be reviewed once the findings of the governments inquiries into the crisis are published later this year. &#42

Testing times… Fears of F&M continue to overshadow the recovery from last years epidemic.