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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 14:14 GMT 15:14 UK
Agriculture Minister Elliot Morley quizzed

The foot-and-mouth crisis continues, with many farmers now saying they will give up.

What do you think about the announcement that cattle on farms next to infected ones will be spared?

Do you have specific concerns about the culling and disposal processes or do you have questions about vaccinating livestock or the danger to humans of the disease?

Has your livelihood been affected by foot-and-mouth? Are you concerned about food production and farming methods as a result of this crisis?

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Highlights of interview:


Newshost:

What is the situation with the foot-and-mouth crisis at the moment?


Elliot Morley:

Professor King, who is the Government's chief scientist, has already stated that be believes that the outbreak is under control. All the latest figures do show that there has been a substantial decline in the number of cases and the outbreak is following the kind of model that the epidemiologists have predicted.

So at the moment it does appear that the cases are coming down and as the number of cases come down, it means that more and more resources can be allocated to dealing with things like the backlog of animals that need to be removed. The situation appears to be improving day by day.


Newshost:

So this is the beginning of the end?


Elliot Morley:

It does appear that way. It is likely, according to our expert advisers that we will see this go on for some time with the odd outbreak. This is a disease that is not going to end with a bang - it is going to end with a whimper - it is going to peter out slowly.


Chris Berry, Leeds UK:

Why has MAFF not published the true number of farms which have had livestock destroyed? Whilst more than 1,500 farms have contracted foot-and-mouth disease, isn't it right that the true figure of farms now without livestock is nearer 10,000?


Elliot Morley:

It is certainly true that there has been farms which have been dangerous contacts, neighbouring farms which have been culled in order to control the disease. Part of the problem is keeping up with the figures and as you will appreciate, the priority is to stamp out the disease and often there is often a lag in relation to keeping up with accurate figures compared to the number of farms and backlogs.

We have tried to make the figures available - in fact there has probably been no government that has been as open as this one in terms of putting everything that we have - from scientific advice to the latest figures - on the internet.

This has been the first internet disease outbreak whereby people can immediately look at the MAFF web site - they can see the daily figures, the accumulative figures, the number of animals involved - huge amounts of information, risk assessments and advice that we get from scientists. This level of public accessibility has probably never been done before in an outbreak of this kind.


Newshost:

Is there any benefit from your position at the Ministry from putting this information out on the web? Do you get information back or is it just one-way?


Elliot Morley:

At the moment it tends to be one-way because we don't have an interactive facility - we do have an e-mail facility. But most farmers and the public will ring up our helplines if they actually want to talk with people and that is advertised on the web. But a lot of people just want information and that information is on the web site. The MAFF web site is now in the top five web sites in the UK for the number of hits it is receiving.

The internet is a very useful way explaining to people - for example, how foot-and-mouth disease is spread. There is a lot of misunderstanding and you do get urban myths about foot-and-mouth disease. What we are trying to do is give the figures and the accurate scientific advice so people can make their own judgements.


Steve Martindale, Market Drayton Shropshire:

I am at a loss to understand why the Government feels it is justified to spend such vast sums of public money on the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Each burning pyre costs tens of thousands of pounds, whilst the compensation payments to farmers must, by now, be an enormous sum. Could the Minister please justify why the taxpayer should be funding this level of Government support to the UK livestock industry?


Newshost:

Another questioner has a similar question.


Tom Pearson, Cambridge, UK:

Given that farmers are having huge quantity's of money thrown at them by the Government. Why should we feel sympathetic to farmers when every other affected business is not similarly compensated for their losses?


Elliot Morley:

It is a very expensive operation in order to stamp out the disease. Although I would say that not stamping it out would be even more expensive. If we had endemic foot-and-mouth disease it would require constant vaccinations with the cost and difficulty of all that. We would lose our export status and that would have economic consequences.

There would also be consequences for tourism. I do accept the point that tourism is more valuable to the economy than the livestock sector - there is no denying that - it is about 10 to 1 in rural tourism's favour. But if we have endemic foot-and-mouth and the problems that we have got now with international visitors for example, would be permanent. It would affect our tourism if we have endemic foot-and-mouth - it is important that we do eradicate the disease. So that does justify the approaches that we are taking. But it is true it is very expensive and a lot of money has been spent - the average compensation to livestock farmers is about 250,000.


Newshost:

There has been a feeling expressed in the House of Commons that perhaps too much attention has been given to the plight of farmers and not the same amount of attention - certainly not the same amount of media attention or talk of compensation is given when, say, steelworkers or coal miners lose their jobs.


Elliot Morley:

As someone who represents a steel town, I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view. I have lost nearly 700 jobs in my own constituency in the steel works. We campaigned very hard for compensation for the affected workers and we have received funding from the Government for communities that have been hit by this.

But it is a fair comment to make that there are other businesses than farming that have been hit in this present crisis. It is not possible to compensate them fully because it is impossible to work out their total losses. But I do sit on the Rural Taskforce group which is chaired by my colleague, Michael Meecher, and we are trying to give some help to other rural businesses which have been affected by this outbreak.


Rob Harris, London:

Foot-and-mouth is not usually fatal, and animals infected will tend to make a full recovery and the disease poses no real threat to humans. So my question is simply: why all the slaughter?


Elliot Morley:

Because it is part of the eradication programme. Foot-and-mouth does have severe welfare implications for cattle and pigs in particular. Even with sheep, which show less of the symptoms - it can lead to very high lamb mortality. It does weaken the animal - it makes it susceptible to other diseases. People shouldn't think that there are no consequences in relation to animal welfare for those animals which get this disease. It is a pretty bad disease and it can have devastating consequences for cattle and pigs in particular.


Newshost:

So there was never an option to allow the disease to run its course?


Elliot Morley:

No it was never an option because you would have to deal with the welfare consequences particularly in cattle and pigs.

To control the disease you would have to have an eradication policy. Even if we had used the vaccination policy - and we have always kept that option open - but as you have been aware there has been a lot of controversy within the farming community - you would still have to do it alongside a culling policy. So a culling policy, to varying degrees, is an essential way of stamping out foot-and-mouth.


John Farrar, Leeds, UK

Is it possible to provide a "fire break" around infected areas by spraying disinfectant through a crop spraying aircraft? It might stop the spread of the infection.


Elliot Morley:

I understand the Scientific Group has been looking at those kind of proposals but I think it is felt that at the present time with the kind of disinfectants that we have available, it wouldn't necessarily help.


Richard Hughes, Crowthorne, Berkshire

Foot-and-mouth disease presumably entered the country from abroad. What extra steps are being taken to tighten frontier controls to prevent another similar incident?


Elliot Morley:

We do have controls on imports from other countries and also from countries that have foot-and-mouth disease. It is almost certain that this was an illegal import.

We do have checks and we do examine different loads and we need to look at whether or not we need to do more on that. We also allow imports of certain products for personal use and that has also been called into question. So yes, I think there is a case to look at a whole range of measures following on from the disease including animal movements and imports to see whether or not we can tighten the regulations.

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