Why isn't the Government paying for foot and mouth?
By Matt Ridley
Daily Telegraph June 4 2001
HOW easily we all become inured to horror. Imagine if somebody had told you in February that by early June, the Government would have slaughtered more than three million livestock on 7,700 farms; that it would still be slaughtering them at the rate of up to 80,000 a day; that all across the north and west of the country, the tourist industry would be in ruins; and that this same Government would be coasting to victory in the general election. You would have refused to believe them.
Foot and mouth is still rampant. It has opened new fronts in Lancashire, Cheshire and North Yorkshire. Yet it is not even an issue in the election. The media's brief attention span has switched elsewhere and the public's sense of horror has dulled. Who cares if a bunch of Cumbrians have lost their living? It is probably their own fault for not having diversified into growing organic aubergines anyway. Londoners who come to my farm are amazed to find that foot and mouth is still going on. Why on earth, they giggle, are you still spraying people's cars? All that was on television in March, not May.
Prompted by having to put off the election, in April the Government did act with dispatch. It fudged the figures. By the simple trick of killing animals without "confirming" the disease, most of the deaths became "slaughter on suspicion", thus dropping out of the table of "confirmed cases" released by the ministry and carried by most newspapers. As a result, for every confirmed case there are now 12,000 animals killed; in March the figure was 500: funny that.
The Government took other tough measures, too. It silenced the vets. If you speak to vets privately you get a torrent of complaint at the incompetence of their masters, but one word to the press and they are in trouble. The Data Protection Act was cited to avoid counting the slaughter of healthy animals. With great cunning, blame was drip-fed on to the farmers and away from ministers.
True, there was also action to combat the disease itself - brutal, mechanical and, we now know, largely futile action to kill as many animals around an outbreak as possible - but that clearly took second place to managing the news. The mood of farmers is now closer to despair than anger. They have seen what Maff's ministers are made of: spite. They know that once the election is over, there will be unleashed upon the farmers a holocaust of blame and propaganda from ministers enraged that their primrose promotion path through the Cabinet has been blocked by the little inconvenience of the epidemic.
There was a brief moment in March when this Government (and let's stop hiding behind the pretence that it is "Maff" - governments are supposed to take responsibility for their ministries, or so Labour used to argue in opposition) felt the wrath of rural people. Its reaction was fascinating. It never even tried to pretend that farmers were independent people who should be consulted, persuaded and recruited to the cause. It simply shut all channels of communication and started to dictate as if we were all public employees.
From then on, it acted like a police state. It did things that individuals would have been jailed for attempting: it rode roughshod over the legislation concerning humane killing, sending idiots with rifles to chase calves through fields. It ignored environmental legislation. It slaughtered the wrong flocks. It sent "infected" officials to uninfected farms. It sent inspectors to check the health of cattle that it had already slaughtered. It put people out of work without consultation. It devolved no responsibility. It turned the very community that could have contained the outbreak - the farmers - into sullen and fearful subjects. It blamed the victims. Treated like criminals, a few were tempted to act like criminals.
A dictatorial slaughter policy would have worked for localised outbreaks if implemented fast - as Ireland, France and Holland demonstrated. But once that chance had been missed, such a policy was a catastrophe. It devastated a vast tourist industry in a failed attempt to save a small meat export market. These are not just little mistakes. They are huge blunders.
Yet the Prime Minister, when asked to promise a full and free public inquiry, dodges the question. Michael Meacher, the environment minister, was slapped down for suggesting it. Incredibly, although he was happy to hold a public inquiry into the handling of BSE, Tony Blair seems intent on not having one for foot and mouth. Could it be because not even Alastair Campbell can (yet) find a way to blame foot and mouth on the Conservatives?
If the pressure to hold an inquiry grows too great, Mr Campbell (sorry, Mr Blair) will try to make sure it is a broad-ranging inquiry into the future of intensive farming, or a shuffling of civil servants from Maff to a new rural affairs department - anything to avoid discussing the competence of the Government's actual response to the foot and mouth epidemic.
The foot and mouth saga has not been a natural disaster. It has been a massive failure of public policy. The policy has saved neither farming nor tourism. There was an implicit bargain between the Government and the governed. We the governed were to close down the countryside, seal off our farms, minimise contact with livestock and take all precautions to prevent spread. In exchange, the Government would quickly kill the diseased animals and normality would return.
We kept our side of the bargain. With very few exceptions, country people sealed themselves off behind disinfectant and acted responsibly. In the case of many tourist businesses, they did so at the cost of their livelihoods. The Government did not keep its side of the bargain. It allowed appalling delays between reports of disease and a vet's visit, further delays between the visit and the confirmation, further delays between that and the slaughter, further delays between the slaughter and the disposal. It failed to answer its own telephones. It delayed calling in the Army. It allowed staff shortages rather than call in the hunts. It chose to burn, not bury - against the advice of the 1967 report. It insisted all was "under control" when it was not. It used flawed epidemiology.
Then, two months into the epidemic, instead of revising the policy to allow vaccination and save both farming and tourism, it instead started managing the news in the hope that a supine broadcast media would fall for the simplest statistical tricks and drop the matter in time for the election.
The Government's foot and mouth policy was not an exception. It was typical of everything it does. The instinct for centralised control was uppermost. We country people were treated in exactly the same way as teachers, doctors, parents and patients. We were to obey those who knew best in Whitehall. No initiative to be taken, no responsibility, no local knowledge, no sense of a contract between the governed and the governors. We were not even to be trusted with the truth. We were to act like airline passengers, helpless and passive, while Tony, the flight attendant, looked after us. Only he did not.