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EDITIONS
Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK
Foot-and-mouth: A Pyrrhic victory?
Burning pyre PA
The pyres will burn for some time yet
BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby wonders whether the UK Government has lost more than it has won in defeating the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Hindsight is marvellous, and we can all be wise after the event.

If the battle against foot-and-mouth is really in the home straight, though, it is time to learn the lessons.

This outbreak differed from the 1967 crisis because the UK is in many ways a different country.

But if ministers have won the battle against the disease, they may have lost a much bigger war.

The ultra-cynical will say the government has pulled off a remarkable double, persuading both urban and rural voters that it cares little for any of them.

Bigger problems

At the least, the government must now answer charges that it chose the right strategy but did not pursue it wholeheartedly.

Its approach from the start was to treat the outbreak as an economic problem which affected only farmers.

Pigs emerge from lorry BBC
The slaughter has been vast
That ignored the much greater economic crisis which quickly engulfed tourism and other countryside (and urban) businesses.

And it has puzzled large numbers of people who still fail to understand why it was necessary to slaughter animals suffering from a disease which in many cases would not have killed them.

There was another possible solution: vaccination. At the very least, that could have formed part of the strategy to eliminate the outbreak.

And the government did consider it. Then it reconsidered it again, and again.

The reason for its indecision was, to many critics, simple. Foot-and-mouth spelt economic ruin for farmers and rural Britain, but the government was determined it would not spell electoral ruin for it as well.

So slaughter was not just the preferred option. It remained the only option, because vaccination might have risked antagonising powerful friends.

The snag was that there were not enough people to kill the animals, and to value them before they were killed so as to ensure that farmers received compensation.

Nor were there enough vets to decide whether animals really had the disease, nor disposal teams to get rid of the corpses quickly.

Then somebody suggested calling in the army, and things moved ahead much more briskly.

It was only a pity the army had not been mobilised sooner. A report into the 1967 outbreak had said specifically that it should be used from the start of any new crisis.

Inept

But even then it was not all plain sailing. The disposal of the corpses aroused fears that people's health could be at risk from airborne pollution or leaks into groundwater.

You could say those fears were inevitable, as the government had to choose the least bad disposal option in the absence of any totally risk-free route.

But once the fears surfaced, the handling of them was often inept.

The government said that a burning pyre's output of polluting dioxins was equivalent only to that produced by two bonfire nights.

Sheep on road PA
The end of a long road is in sight
That is very probably true. But bonfire nights are notorious for producing more dioxins than almost any other time of year, so it would probably have been better left unsaid.

Perhaps the government's most obvious omission so far has been its reluctance to say how it intends to prevent foot-and-mouth and other diseases entering the UK in future.

Ramshackle

It will be very difficult to build really effective defences, but fairly simple to make some basic improvements in the ramshackle system of border controls that exists at the moment.

Whenever the outbreak is declared over, there will be little to stop the virus arriving in the UK again within hours, except the vigilance of overworked port health officers.

Asked a few weeks ago what had kept the UK free of foot-and-mouth disease since 1967, an animal health expert replied: "Luck."

But even governments with large majorities cannot rely on luck for ever.

See also:

03 May 01 | UK
03 May 01 | UK
02 May 01 | Science/Nature
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