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Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 17:40 GMT 18:40 UK
Foot-and-mouth: A moving target
Dead sheep on farm PA
The slaughter comes to farms which thought they had escaped
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The upsurge of foot-and-mouth cases in the north of England has sparked fears that the outbreak may be far from over.

The UK Government's critics accuse it of concealing the real extent of the outbreak.

They say it has prematurely claimed the crisis is ending, and has urged dissenters to keep quiet.

And they believe it has failed entirely to learn the lessons of the 1967 outbreak.

The figures published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) are certainly confusing.

The latest total of confirmed foot-and-mouth cases listed there is 1,624.

But if you suppose that means that only 1,624 farms have been affected, you would be wrong.

Not counted

A farming specialist told BBC News Online: "We've been monitoring the number of farms affected, and within the last week a hundred farms a day were being killed out.

Barred gate PA
The countryside closes down
"Maff was reclassifying them, not counting them as infected premises but in one of three other categories - farms contiguous to premises which had been infected, farms with a dangerous contact with the disease, or farms where they were slaughtering on suspicion.

"None of those categories is counted in Maff's published total of confirmed cases on its website.

"So it can say there've been about 1,600 cases, while we know that 7,542 premises have been slaughtered out - in other words, they're farms which have lost all their stock."

A Maff spokeswoman told BBC News Online: "Cases that have not been confirmed are not cases. A case is a case only when it has been confirmed.

"And we do publish the total number of farms slaughtered out on the site.

Confused

"People allege that we have changed our methods of publishing statistics, but we haven't.

"They don't understand the information we publish, and are reading into it things that aren't there."

But suggestions that politicians could (let alone would) deliberately mislead anyone are dismissed by Keith Baker, a past president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA).

He told BBC News Online: "Maff's chief vet said several weeks ago that nobody could afford to relax just because the figures were going down.

"The politicians may be thinking about the general election, but the veterinary service certainly isn't taking its eye off the ball.

"And they're the people who get out on the ground and see what's happening, not the political leaders.

"The politicians won't get away with anything they shouldn't. The control of this outbreak is vet-led."

Fatuous

Wendy Vere, a veterinary surgeon in Devon, one of the centres of the outbreak, wishes she and her colleagues had had more control.

She told BBC News Online: "This has been a fatuous way to deal with the disease, killing huge numbers of animals and leaving them to putrefy.

Lambs in field AP
Many animals "could have been spared"
"Without a shadow of a doubt, if it had been left to the vets the outbreak would now be history. But it's been run by number-crunchers in London.

"I've found it hard to decide whether the whole thing has been a conspiracy or a cockup. I now think it's a massive cockup, caused by massive lack of resources.

"It was four weeks after the outbreak began that we got an information sheet from Maff telling us what to look out for.

Run down

"We've had Maff staff turning up here and trying to find their way round Devon with maps dating from the 1930s.

"Successive governments ran down the state veterinary service so badly that when foot-and-mouth arrived there weren't enough vets to protect the Isle of Man, let alone the UK.

"And slaughtering animals on farms next to confirmed cases, the contiguous cull, is carnage by computer.

"A good 50% of those farms don't need to be slaughtered out. But it's happening now, in Yorkshire and here in Devon."

See also:

27 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Countryside back on the march
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