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Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown
Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW WITH AGRICULTURE MINISTER NICK BROWN ON APRIL 8TH, 2001

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

DAVID FROST:

And now we turn to the man who's been right there in the centre of it ever since February and that's of course the Agriculture Minister Nick Brown. First of all a response to did you find things you agreed or disagreed with in what we just heard from William?

NICK BROWN:

Well some of the things that William Hague is calling for, of course the government are already doing and he hasn't been very well briefed, saving the genetic material for example is something that is already going on. Making sure that the coordination between the Army and the veterinary profession is working properly, all of that is already going on, making use of the Armed Service all of that, of course is already happening and actually 1,700 troops are deployed in this as well as 1,500 vets and that's from the state veterinary service, that is normally staffed up to something like 220. I mean there is a massive logistical exercise and increase in resources already taking place in order to confront what is a very serious disease outbreak.

DAVID FROST:

But at the same time there are things, people, the report, the two reports from 1967 said in their quotes very clearly that the Army ought to be involved from the very first day onwards and that didn't happen here did it?

NICK BROWN:

No well that isn't right, I mean the Army were involved at an early stage, we borrowed their vets straightaway and as we needed assistance for logistical purposes we sought that from the Armed Services and willingly received it. But remember the spread of the disease was not predictable, indeed I think I explained on a previous programme that we didn't know what was incubating in the national flock, nor did we know where it was incubating and we had to, of necessity, wait until it emerged before we could confront the problem and deal with it and that's exactly what's going on.

DAVID FROST:

Yes because people have said there's been too much delay, there was a warning to Jim Scudamore on March 16th that things were out of control, but, but it wasn't really announced and responded to for another week, they say, until Maff announced it after, after David King's statements on the 23rd that we, we lost a week there, that people say could have doubled the damage?

NICK BROWN:

No all, all of this is pretty unfair and it's people looking backwards and saying that if you'd known what was going to emerge in Cumbria you know you should have been there waiting for it to emerge. But nobody predicted where the disease had spread and how intense it was going to be, the real problem that we're faced with is that the disease got a two, maybe a three week start on us, not, not because of anybody's fault but because of the way the disease incubated at that Headon on the Wall farm, spread to sheep and was then spread throughout the country by the movement of sheep and sheep dealers, the pattern of trade, before anyone realised the disease was in the country at all.

DAVID FROST:

Everybody says that was, that was the crucial fact.

NICK BROWN:

That is yes.

DAVID FROST:

How it was possible that it went unreported for two weeks by the farmer and so on I don't know but, but that was, the disease had a two week start didn't it, perhaps three?

NICK BROWN:

At least a two week, perhaps three weeks and how it went unreported is the matter of an investigation, and I frankly, I can't comment further on that.

DAVID FROST:

Obviously prior to an investigation. And now some people do say that 19th of February when that first case was confirmed on the 20th, that maybe the movement of all susceptible animals should have been done on the 20th and not the 23rd, that we lost three days there, is that fair?

NICK BROWN:

That's what's said in retrospect but you'll remember when I imposed movement restrictions, made Great Britain a controlled area on that Friday after talking to the Prime Minister who was, by telephone who was in the United States of America, everyone said I was over-reacting and there were only four cases, three in Essex and one in Northumberland. In retrospect it turns out to have been a very wise thing to have done but at the time the charge was over-reaction rather than you should have done it earlier.

DAVID FROST:

What about, Nick, the thing that people have said very much that the, that, I mean it's taken a long time to get the procedure from analysing that there is foot and mouth through to slaughter and then through to disposal of the carcass, that those, those periods, one that should be 24 hours was up to a week and so on, was that inevitable or could that have been avoided?

NICK BROWN:

We've had to up our game dramatically to deal with a very fast-moving situation and the substantial emergence of a large amount of infectivity, particularly in what are called the hotspots in North Cumbria and in Devon. The State Veterinary Service as I said before has gone from 220 employees as field workers to 1,500, that is a dramatic recruitment exercise, that all of, the time of the vets has to be managed, we're getting reinforcements from the Armed Services in the logistical operation has to be undertaken, but there is no substitute for the policies that we're pursuing which are to get to the outbreaks as quickly as we can and when infected premises are reported we're trying to get there in under 24 hours. And then to make sure that we also cull out the neighbouring farms in 48 hours and of course people who've got animals that are neighbouring to a farm that's infected, say well look my animals aren't affected do they really have to go? And people want to argue about it but I'm afraid the truth is they do have to go otherwise the disease will remorselessly spread.

DAVID FROST:

Could you have upped your game any sooner though, do you think, looking back on it what obviously hindsight as you said, hindsight is an easy thing, but I mean obviously there must be something that you wish you'd done differently?

NICK BROWN:

I think once this over we will all, all want to look back at what happened and to draw lessons from it, but, but for the moment we, all our energies should be concentrated on bearing down on the disease, making sure it remains contained and eliminating it.

DAVID FROST:

What about the suggestion you're going to, we talked about the Army and whether the Army could have been earlier, the other, the other thing is people say that you didn't bring in, didn't listen to the epidemiologists soon enough?

NICK BROWN:

This is all complete nonsense

DAVID FROST:

Is that nonsense?

NICK BROWN:

We actually got two epidemiologists to come to help us from New Zealand at the very start of this and people said well you should have opened up your new computer system and all of that in the early days. But epidemiology works, is evidence-based, it's a mathematical process and you have to have some data to put in before trends can be discerned and in fact the people undertaking this work have praised the Ministry of Agriculture for the quality of the statistical information that is now going in to the analysis but on day one all the analysis would have shown you is that there is one abattoir and two infected farms in Essex. And if you'd extrapolated from that information alone you'd have had a huge amount of resources in Essex and nothing anywhere else in the country.

DAVID FROST:

Is it true, people say that Maff has been partially sidelined by Geoff Hoon and by the Army is that true?

NICK BROWN:

No that isn't true but what is true is that the Department, which is as you know is relatively small department in government, hasn't got the resources to undertake what is necessary in this set of circumstances on its own and so we've needed the Prime Minister's authority to draw resources from across government and I think the Prime Minister's acted absolutely superbly in all of this, we've needed help from the Ministry of Defence and we've received that help and cooperation, it's been willingly given and the tasks have been professionally undertaken. And I have to say that the working relationship between myself and Geoff Hoon couldn't be better.

DAVID FROST:

And what about, how do we define it today, William Hague was just saying that the situation's not under control, there was a time when you thought it was under control, what, how would you describe the situation today?

NICK BROWN:

It has always been under control but there's a lot of it and what, what, as I said on previous programme and repeat today, what I cannot predict is what is incubating, remember there's an average incubation period of two weeks in sheep for this virus, nor can I predict where it is incubating. The epidemiologists tell us there will be occasional outbreaks in other parts of the country unexpectedly, there will be a relatively small number of them but they will occur and of course that explains what we've seen at Jedburgh and at Whitby overnight.

DAVID FROST:

But you would say that things are under control?

NICK BROWN:

Yes of course, of course I would. The disease, this is a viral infection in animals but it isn't anything new, it is a well understood disease, the techniques for controlling it are also well understood, the problem we're faced with is that it got a two to three week start on us.

DAVID FROST:

Have you ever at any stage offered your resignation Nick?

NICK BROWN:

No of course not, I mean the, it isn't, the disease isn't the fault of the people who are trying to control it, to start blaming each other or fighting each other they must stake, what we should do is stick together and concentrate on the real enemy which is the disease itself.

DAVID FROST:

And where do you stand today on vaccination?

NICK BROWN:

Well I, I have always kept vaccination as a policy under review as I'm obliged to do, anyone reading the Philip's Report realises that ministers must keep alternative policies under review but it is exactly that. There are advantages to using a vaccination policy and there's a range of different policies we could use, but there are substantial disadvantages as well and in summary they're to do with trade and to do with the risk that by vaccinating you prolong the disease rather than bring it to a conclusion.

DAVID FROST:

Nick thank you very much for being with us this morning.

NICK BROWN:

You're welcome.

DAVID FROST:

Our thanks to Nick Brown.

END

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