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Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon MP
Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon MP
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST DISCUSSION BETWEEN LORD HASKINS, CHAIRMAN OF NORTHERN FOODS, MARTIN HAWORTH, NFU POLICY DIRECTOR AND GEOFF HOON MP, DEFENCE SECRETARY APRIL 22ND, 2001

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

DAVID FROST:

This week the government's Chief Scientist confidently predicted that the spread of foot and mouth disease is now under control. A mood of optimism has boosted the spirits of some, others of course like farmer Wayne Nuttal feel rather differently. A map-reading mistake meant all of his livestock were slaughtered unnecessarily and the controversy continued to rage over what to do about vaccines. The government's been wanting, apparently any way, to implement a firebreak vaccination programme, but they said they'll only proceed if 60 per cent of farmers support the idea, can the country afford more dithering on this matter, is the moment for vaccination past, in a moment I'll be putting this to the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon but first of all I'm joined here in the studio by the National Farmer's Union policy director, Martin Haworth and from his farm near Hull the Chairman of Northern Foods Lord Haskins. Lord Haskins beginning with you, you were in favour of vaccination going ahead, the dithering being over?

LORD HASKINS:

I think so, I've changed my mind, I was against vaccination at the beginning but I think that if we can save 200,000 cow's lives in Cumbria which seems likely, without any problems thereafter we should do that. I think we're going to have to learn a lot of lessons from this outbreak, everybody was against vaccination before it started but the scale, the size, the cost, the time involved in getting it put in order means I think all countries are going to have to look at vaccination much more closely after the event. However I still believe we have to go on culling but using vaccination as an additional element to speed up the end of the process in Cumbria and in Devon.

DAVID FROST:

Martin, do you agree with that, no?

MARTIN HAWORTH:

No I don't agree, I think we have to understand very carefully this, vaccination is not being proposed as a disease control measure, the disease control measures we've got in place as, are, as the Chief Scientist said working now, what is being proposed, vaccinations being proposed in order to try to take off some of the resources away from disposing of cattle which is a terrible problem in some areas, that the question is whether or not the long-term damage of that vaccination outweighs the short-term gain of doing that and our view is there are too many questions unanswered in order for us to be able to recommend that that's the right policy.

DAVID FROST:

Questions unanswered what's the most, most important unanswered question?

MARTIN HAWORTH:

The most important unanswered questions is will the disease last longer with vaccination and there are a lot of scientists who say it will and as a result we'll actually end up slaughtering more animals if we vaccinate then if we carry on with the current policy.

DAVID FROST:

Back to you Lord Haskins?

LORD HASKINS:

Well I've talked to the Chief Scientist about this and he is confident that there is no long-term impact of vaccinating, a once for all vaccination and we do have to take into account there are other people involved in this awful outbreak as well. There's the tourist industry in Cumbria, there are all sorts of industries tied up in this and the sooner we get people back to normal in those areas, including the farmers, the better. And my guess is that if you ask the majority of those farmers who would be offered vaccination, I guess 70 or 80 per cent of them would go for vaccination in order to protect the herds they've looked after so carefully for so long.

DAVID FROST:

And do you, Martin Haworth, in the light of what Chris Haskins was saying there, do you have a, a, for, as the NFU, I gather in one of the papers you represent in fact about 40 per cent of farmers it says in one of the papers today, is that right?

MARTIN HAWORTH:

I don't think so, we represent about 75 per cent of the full-time farmers, probably 40 per cent perhaps if you looked at all the part-time hobby farmers.

DAVID FROST:

I see, but do you have in fact a veto, has the government or has God given you a veto here, the government want to know what you think, want to persuade you and so on and so forth, but do they have to persuade you in order to vaccinate?

MARTIN HAWORTH:

No they don't have to persuade us, it's their decision. I think what there is is a genuine difference of opinion, the genuine unanswered questions and what we've been through the last week is a series of meetings in which we've exposed some of the unanswered questions and as a result I think the government has accepted that they couldn't really recommend going forward with a vaccination strategy because it is quite possible and I would personally say probable that the long-term effects of that would outweigh the short-term gain.

DAVID FROST:

What about the long-term effects also in terms of the cattle, Lord Haskins, I mean some of the reports say that vaccination is really just a delayed cull because any vaccinated animal will have to be slaughtered sooner or later?

LORD HASKINS:

Well again the, the scientists I've spoken to from MAFF and from the government have said that when the vaccination runs out those cows can live a pretty normal life and live out their normal way without any danger. Now obviously in any thing of this sort there are some risks and government has to take into account the benefits of doing one thing against the risks of doing another and it's for them to decide whether they're going to use this vaccination in the end, I happen to think that this is an option they should not abandon and they should think very carefully because if all those cows go out in the next two or three weeks onto the Cumbrian fields then there is a risk that they're going to be substantially affected by all the sheep which have already infected that land. I think that calculation is a very one but I don't think we should rule out the option of vaccination.

DAVID FROST:

Martin?

MARTIN HAWORTH:

I agree we shouldn't rule it out but it's not right to do it now because the questions, there are far too many questions unanswered.

LORD HASKINS:

But when will it be right?

MARTIN HAWORTH: When the, when the questions are answered which is not going to be soon┐

DAVID FROST:

When the questions are answered? Lord Haskins when are the questions?

LORD HASKINS:

Well the questions, you could go on debating this 'til the cows come home the issues┐ There is some pressure because those cows are running out of feed, they will have to be put out onto grass, some of them are already going out onto grass already and certainly from those cows point of view vaccination will protect them, they certainly would be in favour of it, whoever else isn't.

DAVID FROST:

They're in favour of it?

MARTIN HAWORTH:

Again I don't think so because I think they'll be more at risk from vaccination in the long-term, there are other ways of dealing with this, Chris is quite right, there is a problem when the cows go out, we probably will see an upsurge in the disease and that's been factored into our equations anyhow, but there are other ways of dealing with this, what we need is proper advice about how to minimise the risk and I think the government's going to do that.

DAVID FROST:

Well thank you both very much there, joining us now live from our studios in Nottingham is the Defence Secretary who's been so busy in this field particularly in the last field, unconscious pun like Lord Haskins talking about when the cows come home. But Geoff Hoon is there, good morning Geoff.

GEOFF HOON:

Good morning.

DAVID FROST:

First of all on this, as of today and I know the government has been examining this or wavering or dithering depending on which point of view you take, but where are you on the subject of vaccination this morning?

GEOFF HOON:

Well the government has set out clearly that we see benefit in vaccination, we can see advantages in having vaccination to supplement the existing culling policy but at the same time we equally recognise that it is a matter for farmers, we can't go ahead with this without the consent of a significant majority of the farming community.

DAVID FROST:

And, and so we were just discussing that as you know, but so in a sense the farming community, a significant majority of the farming community has a veto over the government effectively on the question of vaccination?

GEOFF HOON:

It's their animals, it's their livelihood, it's their future, we wouldn't want to take this difficult step without involving them and without feeling that they had support of this process.

DAVID FROST:

And if Mr Nuttal is watching this morning what's your word to him?

GEOFF HOON:

Well clearly mistakes do occur and I'm terribly sorry, I've been to a number of farming communities over the past few weeks and I have seen some terrible sights and terrible waste and that is why the government is so determined to eradicate this disease, to take the firm decisions that are necessary to get the disease under control which is what the Chief Scientist says that we have done. But it has not been an easy process and I understand his concern and the concerns of farmers up and down the country.

DAVID FROST:

In fact the Chief Scientist does say very definitely that things are under control, do you say it with the same certainty?

GEOFF HOON:

He's the scientist, he's the expert on epidemiology, he's consulted a number of other scientists to reach this conclusion, my job has been to try and get this disease under control and therefore I welcome the conclusion he's reached but equally we remain cautious, we remain vigilant, we examine day-by-day the reports from the different areas affected in order to make sure that we don't relax our guard. The work must go on.

DAVID FROST:

And do you think in fact that it does look now as if you and the Army should have been brought in sooner, into this battle?

GEOFF HOON:

Well can I make it clear that in fact the Army were brought in right at the outset to provide logistical support, what then happened was that the disease extended far beyond what anyone had previously imagined it could and at that point clearly it was right to bring in the Army to do a more public job in the sense of seeing the Army, 2,000 of them now, out in rural areas supplementing the excellent work that has been done by other government departments and in particular by MAFF.

DAVID FROST:

And so the, the findings that were common in 1967, that the Army should be actively involved from day one and they weren't actively involved obviously until some time later, everybody says that advice should have been taken but you don't think there were any mistakes at all made?

GEOFF HOON:

I've read carefully the reports from 1967 and frankly we are dealing with a very different world today and a very different outbreak. This disease spread rapidly across the country today because of the ease of communications, we estimate that there might have been as many as two million animal movements before we were aware that the disease was in sheep and those sheep were traded, they travelled, they went to places like Devon, to Cumbria where we've got these terrible hotspots of the disease and that was quite different from the picture in 1967 where there was a very different kind of rural community and a very different kind of rural life and it's not really helpful to make comparisons between the two.

DAVID FROST:

And so looking ahead now, there have been predictions that by early next month the number of new cases may be as low as two a day or so, what is your, what does your graph inside your head or on the wall of your office say?

GEOFF HOON:

Well the figures and these are the figures relied on by the Chief Scientist do show a very significant reduction in the weekly average and it's the weekly average that I think is the most significant statistic down from a peak in the mid-40s to the 20s and obviously we want that to continue to fall and our efforts remain in place to make sure that it does. But as I said earlier we remain cautious, vigilant to ensure that any new outbreaks and there are still new outbreaks each day are tackled effectively with the existing culling policy that we set in place.

DAVID FROST:

And so, I mean, when would you say to people in Cumbria and Devon who are, particularly and in Scotland who are watching this programme, when will country life in those areas return to a degree of normalcy?

GEOFF HOON:

When we've eradicated the disease, I was in Cumbria on Friday and actually the efforts made by MAFF, by the Army and by others have actually returned Cumbria to a relative state of normality although sadly without nearly so many animals that once were there. Clearly as I said on Friday we still have problems that we have to tackle in Devon, people are working round the clock to do that, obviously that work must continue.

DAVID FROST:

And the story, the front page leader story in the Independent on Sunday today, that say pyres creates more pollution than worst factories in UK, Britain's blazing foot and mouth pyres are spewing out more deadly pollutants than all the country's most dangerous factories combined, unpublished official figures indicate from the AA Technologies National Environmental Technology Centre, what, what do you know about this, is this a real danger?

GEOFF HOON:

Certainly public health considerations are uppermost in our mind in the Cabinet Committee that I attend each day we have representatives from the, from the Ministry of Health and they're also present at the local organisations that are responsible for tackling the disease regionally. So we always take account of public health considerations, I haven't studied this particular article in the Independent on Sunday carefully, it sounds a little dramatic, I've seen reports for example from another environmental monitoring agency that compared burning to the equivalent of two bonfire nights, so I think it's important that we put this material into context but equally public health is always uppermost in our mind, we will not take actions that will jeopardise public health but equally there are no risk free options, we have to use burning, particularly for older cattle as a means of disposal. We've got to take some difficult decisions but I assure you and I assure the public that we will take their health fully into account.

DAVID FROST:

Yes I must say when you compare the factories which are doing it all the time and a pyre which has a limited life in one, one sector of the community, it does sound as though, as you say, the story may be a bit overstated but at the same time it does underline the point that sometimes you have difficult calls to make here where you may have to say well even if it is polluting the countryside it's got to be done?

GEOFF HOON:

That's right, we have problems in Devon with carcasses lying on the ground, they are rotting, we have problems clearly in finding appropriate burial sites because of the very high water table, we don't want to pollute water therefore we've had to take some difficult decisions in relation to whether you leave the carcasses on the ground or whether you bury them. Equally people in Devon are concerned about burning, so there are some tough decisions that have to be taken but above all else public health is paramount and we want to take the right decisions to safeguard public health but equally to eradicate this terrible disease.

DAVID FROST:

And one last question on a subject we were discussing earlier with Ann Widdecombe, she, she called the CRE pledge silly and that in fact Robin Cook has been playing the race card, not so much the Conservatives but Robin Cook, what was your reaction to that?

GEOFF HOON:

Well I was rather surprised about that, I think the Conservatives have got themselves into a terrible mess over an entirely innocuous document that frankly no one, as William Hague demonstrated, would have any difficulty in signing up for. So I really think it's the Conservatives that have got themselves into this mess over, over this issue and I really think it's time that they thought more carefully about the response for these kinds of issues.

DAVID FROST:

But last word, you have got a problem, you apparently have got 30 or 40 bugs inside the Ministry of Defence, they're listening to your every word like us now?

GEOFF HOON:

Well you'll find those reports were over a ten year period and in fact if we weren't able to find these bugs and deal with them in the way that we've done over that ten year period then we might have a problem. My security experts tell me the fact that we can track these down does indicate that security remains at the very highest level in the Ministry of Defence.

DAVID FROST:

Geoff, Geoff Hoon thank you very much for joining us.

END

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