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The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The report will criticize former ministers and civil servants"
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The BBC's Andrew Marr
"Nobody knows just how many will be affected by this"
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Professor Tim Lang, Thames Valley University
"What are the lessons for the future?"
 real 56k

Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 04:13 GMT 05:13 UK
Victims' families await BSE report
Cows
Cattle first showed signs of BSE in the mid-1980s
By environment correspondent Tim Hirsch

The long-awaited report of the official inquiry into BSE is to be published - and it is expected to be a damning indictment of how the crisis was handled.

BSE Inquiry statistics
Total cost about 27m
Lasted two years
Involved more than 3000 files of information
More than 630 witnesses gave written evidence
333 witnesses gave oral evidence
Families of some of the 84 victims human form of the disease - vCJD - will gather in a London conference centre on Thursday morning hoping to finally get some answers about why their loved ones died.

They welcomed reports last weekend that the government has approved a compensation package costing millions.

Lord Phillips' 16-volume report follows a 27m inquiry which has spanned the past two-and-a-half years.

Although individual former ministers and officials will be singled out for criticism, its focus will be on the institutional failures which allowed rivalries between government departments and confused lines of accountability to get in the way of effective action.

Donnamarie McGivern with her aunt
Teenager Donnamarie McGivern died of vCJD last year
And it is expected to paint a scathing picture of the way government decisions were made between the time that BSE first appeared in cattle in the mid-1980s, and the stunning revelation in 1996 that it had apparently spread to man.

It has emerged during the inquiry that in the early days of BSE, vital research was delayed because of turf wars between the Ministry of Agriculture's veterinary laboratory and another government unit in Edinburgh specialising in brain diseases.

And when expert scientific committees were finally set up to advise on what action to take, officials and ministers left the public with confused messages about their conclusions.

From an early stage the advice was that the risk of BSE spreading to man was remote. That was often translated into statements like "British beef is perfectly safe".

Rules flouted

The official line was that precautions were being taken to ensure that just in case the disease did prove to be transmissible to man, the most dangerous parts of cattle carcasses did not get into the food chain through special rules in slaughterhouses.

But it turned out that five years after they were introduced, these rules were being widely flouted, unnoticed by the Ministry of Agriculture.

So the basis on which those reassurances had been made was undermined on two counts - firstly the government's own safety rules were not being properly enforced, and most devastatingly, the presumption that BSE would probably not infect people turned out to be wrong.

The Phillips inquiry did not turn up a single "smoking gun" pinning a large part of the blame for the crisis on any one individual - rather it exposed how badly the government machine as a whole responded to questions of scientific uncertainty.

Thursday's report will try to draw lessons from this tragic episode - what it will not be able to say is just how many more families will have to go through the agony of watching relatives die from variant CJD.

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See also:

25 Oct 00 | Scotland
Blair sees CJD victim's suffering
02 Oct 00 | Scotland
BSE crisis sparks father's anger
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