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Environment Minister Michael Meacher MP and Chief Veterinary Officer Jim Scudamore

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST:

The most drastic action initiated by the government so far of course, is the plan to slaughter tens of thousands of healthy animals to try and contain the disease, it's an approach the French government have taken and now we're going to be following suit though many British farmers are resistant as we've heard today and claiming there's no scientific evidence that supports these desperate measures. The government's Chief Vet, Jim Scudamore is travelling to Cumbria tonight and will be meeting farmers leaders tomorrow morning to try and convince them to cooperate. Meanwhile the Environment Minister Michael Meacher is heading up a special government task force, a rural task force set up by the Prime Minister last week to see how best to help those farmers and rural industries that have been hit by the crisis. Good morning to you both.

DAVID FROST:

Let me just get, begin with Jim if I may, just to get the, the latest situation, let me start with the words of the Duke talking just now and saying he could not stare me in the face and say that the situation is under control, can you stare me in the face and say that the condition is under control?

JIM SCUDAMORE:

What I can say is the condition's contained, the crucial issue is that on the 23rd February we stopped movement of animals, so by doing that we've stopped the disease where it had been spread by sheep before that day. What we've now got is spread out from the flocks of sheep which were infected before that time. So it's contained by stopping the movement of animals, what we're now seeing is spread from the animals that seeded the disease into different parts of the country and it's spreading locally in those areas.

DAVID FROST:

Can you see an end to it?

JIM SCUDAMORE:

I think it's going to take a long time, we have 298 outbreaks, we have a predominant problem now in Cumbria, Dumfries Galloway, the Welsh border and in Devon. We're getting sporadic outbreaks in other parts of the country.

DAVID FROST:

And what about the culling plan, I mean those people who say this is tragic waste, here are these uninfected sheep being killed, culled¿slaughtered?

JIM SCUDAMORE:

Well the whole thing's a tragic waste, I mean nobody wants to go round and slaughter animals but what we've had to do is to look at the disease, we've had to look at its spread and what we've seen is that the predominant problem is in Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, the two areas between them have had 122 cases which is well, a very high proportion of the cases. Secondly a lot of the movements through Longtown Market which we know was infected for a longish period are into those areas, so we believe that our epidemiological picture shows that the heavy weight of infection in those two areas in particular.

DAVID FROST:

So that when, when you meet someone like Jaquie Mounsey who we talked to earlier on in Cumbria tomorrow and they say why are you doing this to us, why, why, why, convince me, what's the most important of your arguments?

JIM SCUDAMORE:

Well there are two arguments in fact, one argument is that the disease in sheep can go unrecognised, it can go through the flock quickly, those sheep can then become a source of infection to cattle and to other sheep and the evidence with the infected farms in parts of Cumbria is that it could well have spread from farm to farm and that it's highly likely that all the sheep in the area we're looking at are potentially infected. The second point is that if we don't remove that potential source of infection it will remain there and it will cause considerable problems when the sheep are put out onto the hills later on, it will act as a focus of disease and infection and it'll keep spilling over into the rest of Cumbria and it could spill back into the rest of the country.

DAVID FROST:

And in fact what about the point she made about the carcasses of dead animals not being moved quickly enough?

JIM SCUDAMORE:

Well that has happened and we have an immense logistical problem, the Duke of Westminster mentioned the '67, '68 outbreak and over a six month period 430,000 plus animals were killed. We've already had to deal with 250,000 plus animals so we have an immense logistical problem and what we're trying to do is to identify the disease as quickly as possible, have the animals valued because they belong to owners and they want the value for the animals, then kill them and then remove them.

DAVID FROST:

Thank you very much Jim. Turning to you Michael, the, how much suffering have you seen since, since Tuesday of this week and, and maybe before, but since the task force got under way, I mean how much suffering out there?

MICHAEL MEACHER:

There is undoubtedly a very great deal of suffering, I have had people come to me, I was in the centre of the country, the heart of England Tourist Board region and there were people who were absolutely desperate, not just farmers but people who are dependent on the tourist industry, small shops, rural businesses, those who've got tourist attractions in the countryside, there is no doubt that many of those have had takings that have gone down 20 per cent, 50 per cent, sometimes even more and they are looking for short-term practical help to tide them over the crisis, they're looking for help to get their visitors and customers back as quickly as can be safely done and that's the two roles of the task force.

DAVID FROST:

Yes, warning people off the countryside actually was probably over-done in the early stages and that, that you're having to correct now?

MICHAEL MEACHER:

I think that's probably right, government never said at any point keep out of the countryside but people with the very best of motives wanted to do everything possible to overcome and contain this disease, they interpreted the fear of transmission of this disease the best way they could help is by keeping out of the countryside. What we now know is that that is far beyond what is strictly necessary, of course we must absolutely rigorously keep to the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer but there are also other businesses in the countryside worth something like £12 billion a year in tourism and we must do nothing which is going to undermine their prospects when it is unnecessary to contain this disease.

DAVID FROST:

Without even referring necessarily to the general election, what you've seen out, out there, will it stop, do you think, the council elections on May the 3rd or can they go on, is it important, is it important to have business as usual or does it look unfair to the people who are suffering?

MICHAEL MEACHER:

Well I think it is important to have business as usual for the sake of those businesses that do depend on the countryside operating normally and I think we need those conditions as rapidly, I repeat as safely can be achieved. With regard to the elections it has always been the case, as we know, that the local elections are held on the first Thursday in May, now at this point I think it would be quite wrong to call them off partly because at this stage with seven weeks to go, I mean we simply do not know what is going to happen with the future course of this disease but more particularly there is a more serious point, the sign that we will be sending to the tourism industry abroad if we say that with seven weeks to go the situation is so serious that we're having to call those off, the implications of the livestock export industry, I really think that is not wise at this point.

DAVID FROST:

Well thank you both, one last question to you both, are you going to have to call in the Army?

JIM SCUDAMORE:

Well we've been asked to call in the Army and the media have said we should, we are actually using the Army for what it's good for so we're in contact with the Army, we've got a number of Army vets, we use them for their logistical skills so we will use the Army where we need it to help deal with the disposal of animals and other areas¿

MICHAEL MEACHER:

That is, that is a view, I think which accurately reflects the government's position.

JIM SCUDAMORE:

Because actually we haven't got enough vets, is the problem, and you can't train a vet in four or five days?

JIM SCUDAMORE:

That's the real difficulty and we're looking to alternative using spotter people who are trained to recognise the disease and other methods and also the important thing is if we can release vets to do veterinary work and use other people to do the work of destroying and disposal and that sort of work, then we might release a, release a number of vets to do other things.

DAVID FROST:

Thank you both very much indeed for that, wide range, wide ranging summary of the current situation.

END

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