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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 07:02 GMT
Pressure for foot-and-mouth inquiry grows
dead sheep
More than four million animals were culled
A public inquiry into the foot-and-mouth crisis is the only way to bring those responsible to account, the government has been warned.

Professor Ian Mercer, the head of the panel which investigated the outbreak in Devon, said: "There is still a great concern culpability has not been apportioned - a proper legal public inquiry is the only way we can bring anyone to account."

His call for action came after the National Farmers' Union accused the government of a "catalogue of delays, failures, incompetence and inadequacies" in its handling of the outbreak.

Lord Whitty, minister for environment, food and rural affairs, insisted lessons had been learned and Britain would be able to deal effectively with any further cases of the disease.

'Urgent need'

Lord Whitty
Lord Whitty denies government "failed" farmers

The NFU argued existing food import controls are "in urgent need of review and strengthening", with more centralised co-ordination of responsibility.

Ministers were also accused of failing to prepare effectively for possible disease outbreaks, and of ignoring the lessons of the previous foot-and-mouth epidemic in 1967.

Lord Whitty said the government agreed with some of the NFU's recommendations but "there are some we strongly disagree with".

He added: "The NFU has been on board throughout the outbreak and contributed to the way we have dealt with foot-and-mouth.

'Controls inadequate'

"I agree that there are lessons to be learned. We have learned lessons already and the Lessons to be Learned inquiry will judge and recommend on these later."

The NFU report blamed imported meat for the outbreak and said the border controls at the time of the outbreak were "inadequate".

It makes 28 recommendations which will be considered by the government inquiry which is due to report back in the summer.

These include:

  • Farmers and rural economy interest groups should be involved in any review of existing plans, which should be regularly tested through simulation exercises

  • The government should provide sufficient disposal capacity for slaughtered animals, using open pyres "only as a last resort"

  • There should be clear command and management structures to tackle a future outbreak, with good communication between government departments and involved agencies, and use of the military where required "at an early stage"

  • There should be more effective liaison between state vets and civil servants, and a "practical and accessible" licence system to allow exceptional animal movements if restrictions are in place

  • The government should give "transparent and consistent" advice to farmers, and to investigate where vaccination might be used in future outbreaks.

    The government was ill-prepared, overwhelmed and, too often, incompetent

    Ben Gill

    Attacking ministers for a lack of contingency planning before the epidemic, the NFU says a failure to set up simulations beforehand added to delays in getting on top of the disease.

    NFU president Ben Gill said: "The lessons of the 1967 outbreak were very clearly ignored in 2001. The government was ill-prepared, overwhelmed and, too often, incompetent. This time they must listen."

    He told the BBC: "The number of animals killed could have been as few as half of what we ended up killing, if we had had proper plans."

    But the farmers' union does not quarrel with the basic tactics of handling the outbreak.

    It says the policy of culling millions of livestock has been vindicated by the fact that the disease has apparently disappeared.

    But Mr Gill did say the government was still dragging its feet over foot-and-mouth.

    Farmers watched their herds destroyed and burned
    He told the BBC: "Eleven months on from the start of foot-and-mouth... the government still has not properly implemented even the current law on controls of imports of meat and food products coming into the UK."

    Recent government action to enforce the controls had been "farcical", he added later, claiming it amounted to "half a dozen A4 posters at Heathrow and Gatwick" airports.

    He said a BBC documentary had shown that "perhaps as much as 10 tonnes of illegal meat comes in suitcases per month through Heathrow alone".

    Mr Gill also defended the NFU's rejection of vaccination as a possible solution to foot-and-mouth, although many farmers called for it during the outbreak.

    He said wishing for a vaccine and having it practically available with the necessary testing were two different things.

    More than four million animals were slaughtered as part of the foot-and-mouth cull.

    A further two million were killed for "welfare reasons" necessitated by foot-and-mouth restrictions.

  • See also:

    17 Jan 02 | Foot and mouth
    Foot-and-mouth epidemic
    20 Jan 02 | England
    EU disease panel in Devon
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