Vet warned of ‘vulnerability’ six months earlier

The government’s chief veterinary officer warned that the UK was increasingly vulnerable to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, six months before the 2001 crisis began.

The warning was made in an internal ministry of agriculture memo, written in July 2000 by the then chief vet Jim Scudamore who added that the UK lacked the ability to identify and deal quickly with an F&M outbreak.

The memo was leaked to Farmers Weekly on 20 February, five years to the day after the first F&M infected pigs were found at an abattoir in Essex.

In the memo Mr Scudamore said that the disease situation in the Middle and Far East was “deteriorating” and Britain was at increasing risk of an F&M outbreak.

He and his colleagues were increasingly concerned that “we are not in a position to identify and deal rapidly with an incursion of a notifiable exotic disease”.

He added that key failings in the UK’s ability to combat disease had been identified two years earlier in 1998 but not enough was being done to address the shortcomings.

All that had been done in the two years was to make plans to establish a project board that would look into the threat of disease, Mr Scudamore said.

“Unfortunately, I believe the issues are becoming more important…and a project board is not the way to deal with the problem.”

He added his concern about the “lack of progress on contingency planning exercises” and the lack of staff training.

Mr Scudamore also said that he was worried about the “capability of the government’s agents to deal with outbreaks of disease, in particular their ability to investigate the origin and spread”.

Mr Scudamore’s warnings were proven prophetic, for within six months pigs succumbed to the disease at Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland.

The disease went on to claim the lives of millions of cattle, sheep and pigs and cost billions of pounds.