This never ending nightmare
by Christopher Booker
Daily mail 31 May, 2001
Could the most daring gamble Tony Blair has taken in this General Election blow up in his face? Having seen his original May 3 election plans knocked sideways by foot-and-mouth, the one thing on which he and Alastair Campbell were firmly resolved was that this messy business could never be allowed to spoil their plans again.
The word was to go out, backed by an array of top government scientists, that the crisis was all but over. They even handed out graphs from the official computer, predicting that the number of new cases would fall to zero on precisely June 7.
Thanks to cunning readjustments of the basis on which the Ministry Of Agriculture, Fisheries And Food (MAFF) published its daily figures, foot-and-mouth soon dropped out of the headlines. Everything indicated, we were led to believe, that the Government had the epidemic licked.
But, in recent days, there have been ominous signs from various parts of the country that the foot-and-mouth crisis is far from over. The disease is continuing to pop up in some alarming places---not least in three herds of the dairy cows which make Cheshire the biggest milk field In Europe.
And, so concerned does MAFF appear to be at how much farther the disease has spread than it is publicly letting on, there are reports that, as soon as the election is over, it is planning a further series of huge mass culls, in counties from Devon to Lincolnshire, as big as anything seen so far.
Yesterday, 100 days after the disease was first noticed here, the Government finally conceded there is no sign of it disappearing. Its thief scientific advisor Professor David King, even warned farmers last night to brace themselves for more outbreaks.
The first indication of a massive cover-up of what was happening in the crisis came earlier this month when careful study of the MAFF website showed how shamelessly it was fiddling the figures.
The only statistic the ministry was concerned with was that daily headline figure showing how many cases of the disease had been officially confirmed.
Sure-enough, this figure came relentlessly down In the direction that the spin doctors wanted, to the point where, on Thursday; May 17, it actually hit zero for the first time three weeks ahead of schedule.
But what also became clear was that the, ministry was pulling out all the stops to ensure that as many cases as possible were not officially confirmed, even when vets on the spot were sure they had identified the disease.
The mass slaughter had by no means come to an end. Thousands of farmers were still seeing their animals killed. But, wherever possible, these cases were buried away under different categories which were no longer shown separately in MAFFs published figures.
This concealment of what was actually happening was grotesque. In the ten days leading up to the announcement that the headline figure had dropped to zero, a study of the MAFF website showed that the ministry had, in fact, slaughtered all the animals on more than 1,000 farms.
The next sign that government strategy was not working was when, two weeks ago, hundreds of MAFF vets, slaughtermen and soldiers moved into the area around Settle, North Yorkshire, to kill tens of thousands more animals on 143 farms.
Some were killed because the disease had actually been confirmed. Most had to die under the contiguous cull scheme, whereby, as a preventive measure, MAFF kills all animals on farms within three kilometres of an infected farm, even if none is infected.
A third sign that the Government is more worried than it admits is the unconfirmed report of plans, as soon as the election is out of the way, to eliminate huge numbers of animals which it would certainly have been politically inconvenient to slaughter while campaigning was still underway. One report is that a further mass cull in North Yorkshire is planned around Swaledale for June 15. The same slaughter teams will then move to Lincolnshire.
Last Tuesday farmers in South Wa1es met Vets to discuss ministrys reported intention to cull hundreds more farms around Brecon and Radnor.
In Devon, MAFF has 300 resprayed lorries standing by to transport dead animals in a huge cull involving Dartmoor and Exmoor.
If these reports are true, we could be looking at further devastating blows to Britains rural economy, stretching months into the future.
Such a redoubling of the mass-slaughter policy could result in a huge increase in the number of animals lost in this disaster, already standing at about six million (adding lambs, piglets and calves), or a tenth of Britains livestock.
It is hardly surprising that the farming community is becoming ever more cynical about the Governments handling of the crisis, as the mountains of corpses rise apparently to so little effect.
There is also growing anger at how flagrantly MAFF appears to have broken the law.
A major legal case is to be mounted on behalf of West Country farmers to test whether the ministry has any legal authority for its contiguous cull scheme involving as it does the slaughter of huge numbers of animals which are healthy.
Perhaps most shocking of all have been the many horror stories about the barbaric methods used by ministry slaughter teams to kill animals. These range from soldiers being ordered to beat piglets to death with a shovel as soon as they were born, to the shooting of bolts into animals heads to stun them, without ensuring they are dead. Half-dead sheep have been seen crawling out of burial pits, and lambs have raised their heads out of piles of corpses on the backs of lorries.
The RSPCA has been accumulating a dossier of evidence on such incidents and plans to bring at least 60 cases against those responsible, for breaches of animal welfare regulations.
Clearly, the awful story of Britains foot-and-mouth catastrophe has along way to run yet. The Country Landowners Association this week published figures to show how damaging it has already been to the wider rural economy
And so devastating has the mass slaughter policy been to Britains livestock industry with thousands of farmers probably knocked out for ever that dark questions have been raised as to whether this crisis may even have been regarded by some as a blessing in disguise.
Certainly, influential voices in MAFF and the National Farmers Union have for some time been arguing that Britain has too many small farmers for a modern and efficient agricultural economy, and that some way would have to be found to force many more out of business.
But the most haunting political question centres on that gamble by Mr Blair and his advisers, that they could somehow sweep the crisis under the carpet until the election was over.
If it really turns out that Mr Blair was prepared to subordinate the future of Britains countryside to his own political interests, only for the crisis to flare up all the more disastrously once it was over, will this eventually be counted as one of the most cynical tricks ever played on this country?