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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 April, 2001, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Control of foot-and-mouth
Brigadier Alex Birtwistle in Cumbria
Brigadier Alex Birtwistle in Cumbria

BBC Breakfast With Frost interview with Brigadier Alex Birtwistle, 1 April, 2001

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

DAVID FROST:

And staying with the subject which we touched on at the beginning and end there, foot and mouth, I'm joined now by the man in charge of the battle against the disease in Cumbria, Brigadier Alex Birtwistle. Brigadier, good morning.

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

Good morning Sir David.

DAVID FROST:

When, when you were faced with this challenge, this problem and so on, what was the strategy you, you decided only eight or nine days ago now, I guess?

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

Well we sat down in conjunction with MAFF and I should make it clear we're in support of MAFF, it's not, I'm not actually in charge as you say, I'm in support of MAFF to control and hopefully eradicate this awful disease. We sat down, we took expert veterinary advice and found out all the relevant factors we could get hold of at that time and then we drew two circles on a piece of paper and where they touched we put a disposal site and a disinfectant unit and then we started working back down each circle, one representing the dead sheep loop as it were, the dead animal loop transportation and the other the live animals and started putting on the potential choke points and the problems.

DAVID FROST:

Fascinating, then one of the papers today says that part of it was mapped out, such was the haste and need for haste, mapped out on a cigarette packet, is that right?

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

Well I think that's a bit of a colloquialism but I think that also refers to my filthy habit of smoking, but certainly in the early days we, the Prime Minister came up on Thursday, it was apparent in conversation then that there was going to be a change of pace and on the Friday I summoned a logistic team up and whilst they were doing that not having an office and not wanting to disturb anybody I walked up and down the car park having the odd cigarette and making the odd notes, I think that's where that's come from. Certainly it was contingency planning in haste but by the Saturday we were able to recce the sites, this one behind you - behind me, I beg your pardon - and several others and get all the necessarily environmental clearances, because whatever we do here we're doing with environmental clearance and with veterinary advice and on the Sunday we had the turf off the top and we dumped the first sheep on the Monday morning, at about 10 o'clock.

DAVID FROST:

Yes do you also have RSPCA on site as well?

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

We don't have RSPCA on site but they are welcome and I've said, I'm on record as saying this, to visit as often as they want at irregular and unannounced intervals, they visited, I think, two days ago now, you'll forgive me but I'm losing track of time at the moment and I know the chief, I think it's the Chief Veterinary Officer of the RSPCA is coming today. Additionally we got a very good bill of health and I'm personally committed to this, on the first visit, additionally we have a military vet on site who is also qualified to supervise slaughter houses and everything I can assure the public, and you, is being done to the highest possible standards. Indeed I've slowed down the rate of arrival today because the slaughter men are getting a bit tired and I don't want any mistakes made in the process.

DAVID FROST:

So you've slowed it down, it was actually speeding along very well but, but exhaustion was setting in?

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

I've slowed it down minimally because I've got 45 more slaughter men I hope coming tonight or by tomorrow morning, we're gathering them up from around the country from a variety of sources.

DAVID FROST:

There was an offer I see from Sir Anthony Bamford of JCB to actually provide 30, 40, 50 JCBs but would they, would they be of help to you there?

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

That was a very generous offer and it was received a few days ago by MAFF and I, I believe MAFF asked him to wait until we established what the requirement was. What we really need are what are called high - what we really needed what we call high-lifters with a hydraulic arm on the front that can push dead animals over the top of these sealed units. But I believe that we're getting back, well I hope we're getting back to JCB to see if they can convert from the bucket at the front to the high lifter and if they can then I'm sure we can use them and we're very grateful for that offer and for the many others we've received in response to the MAFF national appeal for these sealed unit trucks which are now building up into a considerable fleet.

DAVID FROST:

And some people are saying that you're going to have, in addition to the tremendous burial operation, that you're also going to have a huge fire, a huge pyre, is that true?

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

We're not, the policy has now gone to burial and we were never going to have a huge pyre. What I wanted to do was to pick up the cattle as quickly as possible because burning was the option all last week, pick up the cattle as quickly as possible from outside the farms where they've lain for quite a long time now, two or three weeks I think in some cases, and put them on the concrete of this airfield. It takes three days just to build a single pyre such as we've got out on the individual farms and my aim was to run a great one along the side of the concrete runway but not light it all at once, but merely to put the beasts on top as we went, make a break, put some more beasts on top and then we could light them one at a time and they'd be out of the countryside and we'd have the problem under control in one central location and I think, perhaps it was my fault, I don't know, if it is I take the blame, this has been misrepresented into a sort of mile-long burning fire which we could neither have done logistically nor would have been desirable environmentally.

DAVID FROST:

Oh that's very clear, very clear indeed. And how soon will it be, do you think, Brigadier, that we will have caught up, that in fact you're up to speed within 24 hours there are no carcasses that have been dead for longer than 24 hours, or maybe we're there already?

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

We're not quite there already, I believe the policy that was announced last night is just being the final dots are putting the i's and the t's are being crossed for the burial of cattle and I'll be in a better position to predict that in a couple of day's time. But I would hope, if we go ahead with the burial, that the next few days should see that clear. The 24-hour time really is more critical in terms of turning the veterinaries round from diagnosis to slaughter, I've got, we started with nine trucks last week, I think I've got 102 today, I've 75 more coming today and that should assist us in lifting the 30,000 dead cattle or those awaiting, cattle awaiting slaughter and the 50,000 dead sheep and the 50,000 awaiting slaughter. We've done 120,000 in, sheep into the pit behind us, that's a combination of the 10,000 a day slain at Carlisle, the 10,000 a day slain here and the dead ones we're picking up on the area.

DAVID FROST:

Well thank you so much for bringing us up to date, just one last question, it's said that you've extended your run of office, as it were, beyond the end of April because, because of this vital task you've got, how long do you think it will take to get the job done. How much longer do you think you'll need to be there?

ALEX BIRTWISTLE:

Well I, I don't want to personalise this but actually I was supposed to hand over the Brigade next Tuesday so the end of April's a bit misleading. I'm going to stay on until the end of April, I was requested to do so, I'm old enough to know that a request is an order. I hope by the end of April we'll have the whole thing in, in position, I can't guarantee how long the disease is going to go, we have to take veterinary advice, all I do know is that we want to get it under control and then eradicate it as soon as possible because it's having a devastating effect on people's lives. END

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