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The web and FMD: could it have been the missing key?

Friday 21 February 2003

Two years after the first outbreak of foot and mouth disease, country columnist John Sheard wonders if a vital tool, the Internet, could have saved the day?

TWO events were marked this past week, both seemingly widely removed in both geography and context, yet could be vitally inter-linked: the National Farmers' Union launched a new "intelligent" website and the nation marked the second grim anniversary of the outbreak of FMD.

According to some views, not much has been improved in our defences against future outbreaks of the disease (see News, Wednesday) but one thing is for sure:

In those brief two years, the use of the Internet in rural areas had surged dramatically. And the question I have been pondering all week is this: had the web been as powerful as it is today, could it have helped avert some of the worst effects of that disaster?

When the disease was at its peak in the Yorkshire Dales and the Ribble Valley into Lancashire, I was asked to serve as honorary PRO for the Craven Trust Recovery Fund, which raised more than £1 million for victims of the outbreak in less than six months.

The money, of course, was exceedingly welcome but one of the most popular actions of the trust was to arrange, in an area stretching from Keighley to Sedbergh, regular pub suppers so that farming folk could get together over a pint and bpie and peas for a chat.

For we had discovered that, with livestock markets abandoned and hundreds of farmers under movement restrictions, one of the key hardships they were suffering was a deep sense of loneliness.

This was not just a petty social inconvenience but also a severe mental threat: many farmers, we believed, were on the verge of committing suicide and, indeed, some did. There could have been more had it not been for stalwart efforts by the Samaritans, Rural Outreach, and dozens of family doctors and district nurses.

What struck me this week, as I pondered those dark days, was the way that DEFRA kept the farming community informed. We, the media, received regular press releases and did our best to spread the word. Here at Daelnet, we published daily reports virtually from Day One until several weeks after the last confirmed case. We know that they were well read because when we finally abandoned them - instead of reporting No News Today - several angry readers complained in no uncertain terms.

But how much better would it have been if DEFRA had issued a daily bulletin written directly for farmers connected to the web, updating it by the hour - or even the minute - when new outbreaks were confirmed or new restrictions imposed?

Perhaps, with a service like that, some of the horrific spread of the disease may have been averted, saving the lives of thousands of culled animals and indescribable stress for their owners.

However, as we all know, Government handling of the tragedy was shambolic, particularly in the early days. And far fewer farmers were connected to the net than today. Now, Web-based movements like the Settle Chamber of Trade's digital cluster are flourishing.

Hopefully, we may never again have to face another FMD outbreak. But loneliness is becoming a real curse of country life as more and more farmers quit the land.

One of the reasons for that is that young farmers rarely get the chance to meet girls, and therefore cannot find a wife. But a properly run website is perhaps an ideal introduction service. It is also the ideal means of communication for myriad other activities.

So when (and if) DEFRA ever gets round to distributing subsidies taken away from food over-production, perhaps it could come up with a scheme to allow people in remote areas a cheaper way onto the Internet.

God forbid that I would ever suggest that an electronic chat is better than a pie and a pint face to face. But it is a damn sight better than no communication at all!

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