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Tuesday, 16 July, 2002, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Foot-and-mouth's painful lessons
Gambolling lambs   PA
Many fields were empty and silent in 2001

The UK Government at least deserves a pat on the back for its political courage.

It commissioned the report from the Royal Society into infectious diseases in livestock.

The Society, the UK's national academy of sciences, has now reported.

And for all the careful, judicious scientific dissection of what happened in last year's foot-and-mouth outbreak, it is clear that the government's handling of the crisis was deeply flawed.

The Royal Society's report comes down unambiguously in favour of vaccination for healthy animals to prevent the spread of any future outbreak.

Last year, ministers talked of vaccination - and talked and talked again and again. What they did not do was start vaccinating.

With this one recommendation, the report has indicted the government for a glaring failure to bring the outbreak under more rapid control.

No room for indecision

Then, if anything could have made the crisis into a full-blown disaster, it was the government's inability to comprehend the scale and enormity of what it faced.

Crucially, it hesitated for three days before banning the movement of farm animals - three days which probably doubled the number of animals that were eventually slaughtered.

Burial pit   PA
Millions of carcasses needed disposal
"Better contingency planning is vital", the Royal Society says neutrally. "The government must be empowered to act decisively during an outbreak.

"This requires prior debate about the control measures to be adopted."

You can say that again. You can say it more bluntly than the report's authors allow themselves to do.

You can say that the responsible department (last year the Ministry of Agriculture, now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Defra) needs to have at least some idea of what modern British farming is all about.

Stronger safeguards

Last year, the ministry did not realise how many farm animals moved around the country, or how fast and frequently. It did not realise that sheep were often sold informally, without entering a market.

Now there is no excuse. The report says: "The precautionary principle should be adopted more widely to ensure that any disease outbreak cannot develop into an epidemic.

Carcasses in slaughterhouse   BBC
Meat products need monitoring
"One of the most effective means of achieving this is to minimise animal movements at all times."

But preventing foot-and-mouth getting here is far better than trying to cure it once it has. The report says: "The overall objective of policy must be to minimise the risk of a disease entering the country.

"It is essential that the UK, and the European Union, strengthen their early warning systems and ensure that warnings are acted upon. Import controls over meat products require tightening."

Found wanting

With "meat products" (including raw and cooked wild species) arriving daily at British docks and airports in containers and passengers' suitcases, this should give the policymakers food for thought.

The 2001 outbreak was not unique in the memory of British farmers. The last serious epidemic had occurred in 1967, and a report on the lessons to be learnt from it was available.

Clearly, many of the lessons were not learnt, or were ignored. This report, bland as it may appear, is devastating.

Next time there will be no excuse.



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16 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
16 Jul 02 | UK
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