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Last Updated:  Friday, 14 March, 2003, 09:33 GMT
Farm disease errors 'inexcusable'
The Ash Moor pit, near Meeth, was intended to take up to 900,000 carcasses, but was never used
Devon's Ash Moor: Sharp reminder of foot and mouth epidemic
Inexcusable mistakes were made in the UK Government's handling of the 8bn foot-and-mouth crisis, according to an influential group of MPs.

Agriculture officials failed to remember the lessons of the 1967 outbreak when the Army was used at an early stage to contain the disease, the Public Accounts Committee said.

It is calling for better planning for future outbreaks and clear policies on when to start vaccinating livestock.

The former Ministry of Agriculture was guilty of a "serious misjudgement" in assuming the risks of an outbreak were low and it failed to prepare for the scale of problems it faced.

Contingency plans focused only on agriculture, even though the 2001 outbreak caused most damage to the tourist industry, which suffered losses of 5bn, the MPs stressed.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) admitted it had made mistakes during the crisis, but argued the scale of the situation had been "unprecedented".

I was told by my accountant to go into liquidation but it would have been like the end of my life
Inn keeper Howard Christie

The report says the 1967 epidemic showed the need to bring in the army at an early stage, but this lesson had "fallen out of the collective memory of the department".

Committee chairman Tory MP Edward Leigh said: "Many things were inexcusable and were done wrong".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the committee estimated that the cost to agriculture and in turn taxpayers was 3bn and up to half of that could have been saved had there been a national ban on livestock movement from the outset of the outbreak.

"The lessons are very obvious, you have got to act decisively and quickly from day one," he said.

The MPs also claimed the government should not have disposed of carcasses on mass pyres.

They also believe that the blanket closure of footpaths for a lengthy period should not have been allowed.

Self valuation

The report, published on Friday, said many of the government's mistakes could be seen with the benefit of hindsight.

The MPs call for better planning to avoid spiralling costs of compensation for farmers.

Nearly 1,400m was received by farmers in compensation and other payments, with the assessed values of animals tripling during the crisis.

Cost and financial controls were weak, particularly during the early weeks of the crisis
Public Accounts Committee
The department, headed at the time by Nick Brown, allowed potential recipients to select and appoint valuers themselves.

It had to pay a premium to get work, such as cleansing farms and construction of disposal sites, the report says.

Some 90m is being withheld from companies where the department has been unable to find out if work claimed for had actually been carried out, the report adds.

"The department's weak negotiating position resulted in it paying excessively for goods and services," the MPs said.

"Cost and financial controls were weak, particularly during the early weeks of the crisis."

The department's contingency plans, in line with EU guidance, were based on an assumption there would be no more than 10 infected premises at any one time.

"The department had not considered any other scenarios because it felt that the risks of foot-and-mouth disease were low. This was a serious misjudgement," the MPs commented.

We were dealing with an outbreak on an unprecedented scale
Defra
"In the event, at least 57 premises were infected before the outbreak was discovered and 2,000 premises were infected in total."

The plans failed to consider the possibility foot-and-mouth might spread through sheep or farmers might not meet their obligation to report the disease.

A Defra spokesman said: "The committee's very thorough report acknowledges that it was a crisis and decisions had to be taken immediately.

"We were dealing with an outbreak on an unprecedented scale, handling a vast operation, and while we got a great many things right, we accept that there were mistakes and lessons have to be learnt."

The government has since set up the Civil Contingencies Secretariat to co-ordinate planning across the UK and has held local and national contingency exercises, said Defra.

A new animal health and welfare strategy had been developed and the department will pursue cases where it believes it has been overcharged, it said.

The department accepts the need for greater flexibility in contingency planning, better communications and the need for speed in scaling up operations like the response to foot-and-mouth.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Edward Leigh MP, Public Accounts Committee
"The cost to the taxpayer runs to about three billion pounds"



SEE ALSO:
Farm virus pit to be filled
06 Mar 03 |  England
5.6m bill for burial site
10 Nov 01 |  England


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