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Review of 2001 Friday, 28 December, 2001, 03:36 GMT
F&M: The rural nemesis
Cattle and Keep Out sign   PA
The countryside became a huge no-entry zone for months
Alex Kirby

The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 proved a classic example of how to turn a crisis into a fully-fledged copper-bottomed disaster.

It meant the deaths of nearly four million animals in the UK, and destroyed thousands of farmers' livelihoods.

It brought devastation to much of the tourist industry and the rural economy.

But there was little reason for it to turn out like that.

The British Government's first mistake was to think, in the earliest days of the outbreak, that it was dealing with a disease that was mainly affecting pigs.

Costly delay

Foot-and-mouth spreads rapidly among pigs, and once the disease enters a herd it can cause havoc. But pigs tend not to be moved around the country as much as sheep.

It now looks as if the disease had infected very few sheep at that stage, perhaps fewer than 20 animals. But the second mistake was not to place an instant ban on the movement of farm animals.

Digger and pyre   PA
The outbreak brought ruin for many
One of the government's own advisers says that the delay of three days in imposing a ban probably doubled the number of animals that were eventually slaughtered.

That failure to introduce a ban immediately almost certainly resulted from ignorance.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff, now renamed the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) simply did not realise how many farm animals moved around the UK, and how fast and frequently.

Spreading the infection

It did not realise that sheep were often sold informally, without entering a market. It did not know about "bed-and-breakfast sheep", hired out overnight to a farmer who wanted to top up his herd numbers for an inspection.

Yet these were ideal ways of shuttling sheep the length and breadth of Britain, carrying the virus with them.

Pigs   BBC
Pigs spread the disease fast
Foot-and-mouth disease is not a newcomer to the UK. The last serious outbreak was well within the memory of farmers working today, in 1967.

If Maff officials had read the report on the handling of the 1967 outbreak, they showed no sign of having done so.

The report argued for the army to be brought in early in an outbreak to help Maff to control it. But Maff, true to form, continued to believe that it could save the day unaided, and the army was left on the sidelines for three weeks.

The government was convinced it could overcome the outbreak by slaughtering both infected and potentially infected animals. But in a crucial error it failed to will the means to achive its aim.

The result was animals waiting too long to die, and carcasses waiting too long for burial.

Remedy ignored

There was another strategy which ministers toyed with, but never found the will to use - vaccination.

Foot-and-mouth disease does not often kill healthy animals, nor invariably cause them great suffering.

Vaccinating them can give some protection, even though it has to be repeated every six months or so.

Sheep and lambs   PA
Awaiting the slaughter
At the least, vaccinating animals in a ring round a source of infection might have helped to slow its spread. But it was never tried.

And finding out from Maff what was happening was often confusing and seldom straightforward.

One journalist who covered the outbreak from start to finish praised the Minister of Agriculture, Nick Brown, for trying to be open with the media, but damned his officials.

Element of surprise

"Telephoning Maff was like ringing the Bermuda Triangle," the journalist says. "The 'phones would ring and ring unanswered until I gave up.

"I eventually realised the only way I could talk to Nick Brown was to doorstep him as he came out of Maff, or to sit in the pub round the corner and wait to surprise him there."

The cost of all this? The Countryside Agency put the cost to UK farming in 2001 at between 800m and 2.4bn.

The cost to tourism, it reckoned, was between 2bn and 3bn this year. Yet it was the government which originally warned people not to venture into the countryside, for fear of spreading the disease.

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