19th February 2001. The Disease which Changed an Election Date.
The Author vividly remembers the summer evenings when the stench from burning pyres of cattle from farms many miles away assailed his nostrils.
Today in 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease was discovered at an Essex, England abattoir which had received pigs from Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight. It was to eventually spread to cattle, sheep and goats.(1)
It was later confirmed that disease was the virulent O virus strain, commonly called the Pan Asia, and was set to cause the biggest outbreak of Foot and Mouth, the world had known. We weren’t declared free of the disease until 14th January 2002.
Contingency plans based on the 1967 outbreak were put in place after the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) had confirmed the disease.
All exports of live animals and dairy products were banned by the government and on the 24th February a mass slaughter of pigs and cattle was underway.
By the 2nd of March things had got so desperate that the army was called in, and in early April Prime Minister Tony Blair was talking about ‘the sensitivity of people in affected areas’, which resulted in delaying local and national elections due on 3rd May, to the 7th June.
By mid-August 4 million animals had been slaughtered. On 30th September the last recorded case was at Little Asby, near Appleby, Cumbria.
It wasn’t until 14th January 2002, after 3 months free from infection, that at midnight, Britain was finally declared free from the disease.
In the process one eighth of all cattle, over 8 million were culled, destroying in the process, thousands of livelihoods.
Despite agriculture only representing 2% of GDP compared with that of tourism of 6%, its affect on the rural economy was devastating. The final cost to the nation was anything between £10b and 20 billion.
In any disaster there has to be a scapegoat, usually someone not in the upper echelons, and one was quickly identified early on 23rd February at Heddon-the-Wall, Northumberland when a pig rearer was found to have used infected pig swill.
He was eventually convicted with failing to inform the authorities of a notifiable disease and feeding his pigs with untreated waste.
This ignores wider responsibilities: Margaret Thatcher had previously reduced government vets. Secondly, where infected animals had not been culled on site, were transferred to the far- off Widnes Rendering Plant, thus spreading the infection.
Thirdly the two scientists employed by the government, to investigate the outbreak, relied overly on computer modelling, which in many ways, by ignoring traditional scientific investigation, was, in a matter of hours produced, in such an opaque, impenetrable form, to confuse any politician. One asks are they worth the magnetic oxide they are written on?
Fourthly EU edicts, religiously adopted by Britain, had resulted in the closure of local abattoirs and so the wider movement of animals, resulting in the need for complex recording and potential for accidents.
Finally there was no scientific consensus as to whether to cull or vaccinate, with the latter adopted by Holland, not being introduced here.
Politically MAFF, thought to be slow off the mark, was replaced (with the same people), by DEFRA, which was also concerned with the environment and transport, and no doubt lessons having been learned!
(1) The initial outbreak was at Cheale Meats with 27 pigs infected, as well as a neighbouring farm.
Ref: wikipedia.org/foot_and_mouth 2001.
Ref: numberwatch.co.uk/foot and mouth outbreak 2001.Ch 15 Epidemiologists.
Ref : Pic. Ref. of Sign by Ben Gamble. licensed under CC SA 2.0. Geographical Project Collection. Common Wiki file FMD. en.wikipedia/foot_and_mouth.