30 March 2001
MAFF failed to use disease predictor
By Jonathan Riley and Johann Tasker
THE Ministry of Agriculture failed to install a powerful computer system it bought two years ago in the hope of preventing a foot-and-mouth epidemic.
MAFF officials purchased a computer tracking system known as EpiMan in the late 1990s, FWi can reveal.
The system was to have been used to predict future cases of foot-and-mouth in the event of an outbreak of the disease.
But government cuts meant funding was switched to BSE and the computer system was left to gather dust.
The system was developed by Roger Morris, a world expert on foot-and-mouth based at Massey University, New Zealand.
Used correctly, the system would have predicted the scale of the epidemic now facing MAFF staff, he said. Prof Morris told FWi.
Undoubtedly fewer cases of the disease would have occurred. We could have damped the disease down much more quickly.
When the foot-and-mouth crisis broke in February, MAFF experts finally decided that the system should be installed.
But they couldnt work out how to do it. MAFF was forced to fly in a team of specialists from New Zealand.
Prof Morris said: The team from New Zealand took just four days to install the system.
The computer system holds detailed maps of the UK and information on factors influencing the spread of the disease, such as weather and terrain,
Combining this data with a tracing system for the movements of people and animals, it accurately forecasts new cases.
Prof Morris said it would have raised the alarm early on in the crisis that MAFF alone could not deal with the outbreak.
The revelation will anger farmers who are watching their livestock slaughtered as the disease runs riot.
Epidemiologists now believe there will be more than 4000 cases of foot-and-mouth before the epidemic is over.
Northumberland farmer Michael Jeans, from Tranwell, near Morpeth, who saw 35 of his cattle and 250 sheep killed this week, said: “I think it is fairly terrible.
The system is used by countries across the world which believe it is a major force in identifying and tackling the disease.
A European Union study, which ended in 1996, concluded that such a system would be useful for EU countries.
However, it recommended that each country would have to work out its own needs.
Recent outbreaks in Northumberland recently all appeared over a similar period of time, said Mr Jeans.
It was possible that the weather and the wind were significant in the spread of the disease and a computer program would have helped to track it, he added.
“The appalling thing is that we seem to have gone backwards.
Nobody at MAFF was available to comment on the computer system.
But Conservative MP Bill Cash, who wants an independent inquiry into the Governments reaction to foot-and-mouth, accused ministers of dithering throughout the crisis.
Only a full public inquiry – like the BSE Inquiry – can establish whether the government has been negligent, he said.
By 1200hrs on Friday (30 March) 780 cases of foot-and-mouth had been confirmed in the UK.