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Foot and mouth: the unanswered farce goes on
17 August, 2001

John Sheard argues that a huge rural tragedy has become a political farce and asks the unasked question: who is hiding what?

HERE we go again. I try and try to avoid the subject but this week - at the height of what old hacks call "the silly season" - there are some questions about the foot and mouth crisis which cannot be ignored.

Trouble is, no one is bothering to ask them.

Sheep The week has been dominated by the sound of politicians, the media and farmers' leaders squabbling in public. A cynic might ask if that had any connection with the fact that - with at least nine enquiries into the tragedy underway - people are already positioning themselves to make sure someone else takes the blame?

The BBC has accused NFU President Ben Gill, who farms in North Yorkshire, of being "barking mad" because he suggested that helicopters carrying TV crews had helped spread the disease in the early days.

The new rural revival csar, Lord Haskins, who farms in the East Riding as well as being boss of Northern Foods, changes tack like a dinghy in a gale. First he says more subsidy should be given to small family farms. Then he says such farms should go, merged into bigger holdings.

Or that small farmers should take day jobs and only farm in the evenings and at weekends (as many put in 100 hours a week already, they won't get much sleep).

When Downing Street distances itself from these remarks, His Lordship pushes over the rudder again and pours out sympathy - which is not much use to Cumbrian farmers where the disease is still raging.

Now this could be a very funny Whitehall farce if this matter were not so serious, probably the biggest earthquake to rock our countryside since the enclosure of the fields in the 18th Century.

But, you see, all this bickering is merely a smoke screen that hides the critical question: who is to blame for the wildfire spread of the disease since it was first confirmed in Northumberland in early spring?

In those first critical weeks, whilst the now-scrapped MAFF mumbled and fumbled, the plague swept the length and breadth of the country. Yet after the 1968 outbreak, a scientific inquiry recommended that in any future epidemic, immunisation "ringing" should be employed as a firebreak around affected areas. This, said the boffins of the time, would isolate the disease to relatively small areas.

Well, we now have a plethora of new inquiries but - here is the key fact - none of them will be public. And critics are already predicting a whitewash, as happened in the BSE case.

We should remember that, back in March, a general election was just weeks away. It was, of course, postponed until June (when Tony Blair said we were on the "final straight" in conquering the epidemic).

So the big question - as yet un-asked, never mind answered - is: were the delays in those critical first weeks caused simply by MAFF incompetence? Or did someone in a position of power order that the situation be hushed-up until after the election?

Good question. My bet is that it will never be answered.



Comments

Immediately after the election I wrote to my MP & asked among other things why F&M had dropped out of the news.

I was told, firmly, that there was 'no conspiracy'- but if I could provide evidence it would be taken up. I can't, of course.
Bernard Sunderland, Keighley


What was very curious about the F&M outbreak even when cattle movements were at a standstill was how the virus was leaping several miles from farm to farm with unaffected sites between. An outbreak in the future could be equally as serious as the recent one unless the vectors and/or means of transmission of the virus can be pinned down more precisely. What is the role of transmission by birds for instance?
R.K.Messent, Carleton, Skipton


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