British government admits Foot-and-Mouth mistakes

The British government tonight accepted making mistakes in its handling of last year’s foot-and-mouth crisis - as the last of three reports into the outbreak was published.

The British government tonight accepted making mistakes in its handling of last year’s foot-and-mouth crisis - as the last of three reports into the outbreak was published.

Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett told the Commons the seriousness of what the country was facing was not realised in the first few weeks.

‘‘The House will know that I have always acknowledged that in the desperate circumstances faced not only by the farming community but by my department and its officials ... mistakes were bound to have been made,’’ she said.

Her admission came on the day the Lesson to be Learned Inquiry into the way the government handled the crisis was published.

It listed a catalogue of failures by government and officials working for the Ministry of Agriculture, later the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The contingency plan designed to combat the disease had ‘‘gaps’’ and had not been properly rehearsed outside the State Veterinary Service, it said.

The way officials reacted to early cases of foot-and-mouth was ‘‘not fast enough or efficiently coordinated’’, it said, and the subsequent impact on tourism and the rural economy was not taken into account.

Even basic knowledge of farm practices, such as sheep movements, was ‘‘limited’’, the inquiry found.

However, the report fell short of naming individuals who made mistakes.

Dr Iain Anderson, chairman of the inquiry, said the country was ‘‘not best served’’ by doing so in his report.

One of those widely expected to be criticised was former agriculture minister Nick Brown, who presided over the crisis.

In a now infamous television interview on March 11 - just over three weeks after the first case of foot-and-mouth was detected - Mr Brown said he was ‘‘absolutely certain’’ the disease was under control.

The report said it was understandable Mr Brown wanted to reassure the public but that ‘‘his comments did not reflect the situation on the ground’’.

By the time the last case was confirmed on September 30 the disease had claimed almost seven million animals and cost the taxpayer and private business more than £8bn (€12.5bn).

The report outlined nine broad lessons to be learned, and made 81 recommendations on how a future animal health outbreak should be tackled with a ‘‘national strategy’’ at its heart.

Burning animals on mass pyres should not be used as a means of disposing of carcasses, it said, although routine vaccination to prevent livestock contracting the disease was also not recommended.

The Army should be consulted at the earliest opportunity, livestock should be electronically tagged to track their movements, and the continued ban on catering waste being used in swill were among the other key suggestions.

Dr Anderson said: ‘‘The foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 was an emergency which became a crisis. And, for some parts of the country, it was a crisis which became a disaster.

‘‘This report looks ahead and sets out proposals to learn from what happened and ensure that, if the country ever again faces such a disease, it can respond effectively with strong systems of management, with speed and certainty of decision making based on sound science.’’

Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers’ Union, welcomed the report and said it was ‘‘vital the lessons to be learned are applied’’.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England said it was pleased in particular with the recommendation to consult widely when planning how to tackle animal health diseases.

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