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Monday, 8 October, 2001, 16:32 GMT 17:32 UK
'Absurdities' attacked at disease inquiry
NFU gives evidence
The NFU was first to give evidence in Devon
The handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis at a national level has been criticised by the National Farmers' Union (NFU) at a Devon public inquiry into the outbreak.

At the opening session of the five-day inquiry, which is being co-ordinated by Devon County Council in Exeter, the chairman of the Devon branch of the NFU, David Hill, said: "Control and command at a national level was abysmal.

"MAFF were playing catch-up from day one."

Devon was one of the counties worst affected by the disease, with 173 cases confirmed and around 390,000 animals slaughtered.

I hope the emotion and the distress which was caused goes through the formal print of a written-up result of this hearing, and that central government take note of it

Proefessor Ian Mercer

Professor Ian Mercer is chairing a nine-strong panel which will examine about 400 detailed submissions and hear about 50 witnesses.

He said: "A large proportion of the submissons are from individuals - from farmers, traders, and from people whose domestic lives have been grossly affected."

Mr Hill, who was the first to give evidence, was also critical of the burden placed on Ben Bennett, the vet put in charge at the outset of the Devon outbreak.

Mr Hill said: "He was being asked to be the information officer, he was being asked to be a manager at a level he'd never been trained to do, but to leave him there for the first three weeks on his own, a vet, fronting up the entire operation, is one of the absurdities of the way this was handled in Devon."

Epidemic prevention

Jeremy Worth, from the Countryside Agency, said blanket bans on access to the countryside were too damaging to the economy.

Dartmoor sign
The inquiry could help Devon's economy recover
He said: "I well remember being on the Devon coast at Easter and realising I could go from my campsite to the town, and nothing else."

A review of blanket bans should take place before another crisis hit the countryside, he said.

Devon County Council launched its investigation into the crisis in August, inviting submissions from across the community.

It said it would complement the government's three independent inquiries into the transmission, prevention and control of epidemics, and the future of farming and food.

The Devon investigation is the only local inquiry in which the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has agreed to take part.

Live broadcast

A report on the hearing will be sent to one of the government's inquiries, the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming, by the end of the month.

Professor Mercer said: "We have got an opportunity here to put forward the views of the farmers themselves.

"I hope the emotion and the distress which was caused goes through the formal print of a written-up result of this hearing, and that central government take note of it."

The hearing is being broadcast live in sound and pictures via the Internet in what is believed to be a pioneering move.

The hearings continue at County Hall, Exeter, until Friday.

See also:

04 Oct 01 | England
Council inquiry to be webcast
03 Oct 01 | England
Public respond to disease inquiry
20 Aug 01 | UK
Cattle back on sale
20 Aug 01 | UK
Six months of farm misery
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