Saturday, 27 February 2021

Foot-and-mouth disease: the advice ignored in 2001

It is now twenty years since the first foot-and-mouth disease (F&M) infection in Wales was detected in a sheep at an abattoir on Anglesey. As this BBC summary shows, the initial outbreak in England could have been controlled better and, later, the spread in Wales could have been restricted.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 proved a classic example of how to turn a crisis into a fully-fledged copper-bottomed disaster. It meant the deaths of nearly four million animals in the UK, and destroyed thousands of farmers' livelihoods. It brought devastation to much of the tourist industry and the rural economy. But there was little reason for it to turn out like that.

The British Government's first mistake was to think, in the earliest days of the outbreak, that it was dealing with a disease that was mainly affecting pigs. Foot-and-mouth spreads rapidly among pigs, and once the disease enters a herd it can cause havoc. But pigs tend not to be moved around the country as much as sheep.

It now looks as if the disease had infected very few sheep at that stage, perhaps fewer than 20 animals. But the second mistake was not to place an instant ban on the movement of farm animals.

Clearly, the Westminster government ignored, or did not seek, expert advice on the disease. It is not as if there were no farmers and vets around with first-hand experience of the previous major outbreak of F&M. I recall discussing the situation with a vet in private practice, a fellow Liberal Democrat, who had been a junior veterinary officer with the then Ministry of Agriculture when F&M struck in 1967.

But the coalition government in Cardiff is not free of blame. Recognising the danger, Liberal Democrat AM, farmer Mick Bates, picked up the phone to the Labour agriculture minister as soon as the news of the Essex case became widely-known, pleading for livestock movement in Wales to be controlled and for livestock markets to be cancelled. He was ignored. It is unlikely that he was the only Cassandra with expert knowledge.

Now there is an automatic ban on cattle, sheep and swine movements when there is F&M about. But so much heartache could have been avoided if governments had listened to the science in 2001.

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