28 June 2002

WHATAWAYTOFIGHTSTOCKDISEASES:RUN DOWNSVSRESOURCES…

What does a good general do before a battle? Strengthen troop positions, perfect battle plans, brief field commanders and rally the troops?

Not General Margaret Beckett. No such strategy in the war against stock disease. Quite the reverse, judging by a letter from a DEFRA business controller seen by NFU Scotland. It orders a halt to new recruitment for the State Veterinary Service and bans overtime and the employment of casual staff. Worse, in some parts, lack of resources will end animal health controls that DEFRA identified as priorities.

Its like running down your army on the brink of battle. How else can we describe plans to further weaken front-line defences against disease? As all livestock producers know to their cost, the threat is increasing not diminishing.

Last week, the governments own financial watchdog, the National Audit Office attributed a cost of £8bn to the foot-and-mouth epidemic and identified too few vets as one reason for its rapid spread. Desperate for experienced vets, we scoured the world bringing in people from Australia and Spain.

Has DEFRA learned nothing from the worst tragedy ever to beset British farming? Will its failure to support the SVS condemn us to relive the horrors of last year? Or will another disease slip through our ever-weakening defences?

Theres no shortage of candidates. Bovine TB has become rampant in some parts of Britain. Already, suspect stock are disappearing into the system because there are too few vets to trace them. Bovine viral diarrhoea and Johnes disease also look threatening. And with slight or non-existent import controls, whats to prevent F&M from returning?

If Mrs Beckett were a general, she would face a court martial. Since the Prime Minister relied on the armys help last year, perhaps it is time for some military discipline in Downing Street.