Tony Blair put out "oversimplified and damaging" messages at the start of the foot and mouth crisis which cost the countryside billions of pounds, a new Government report admits.
The report, by the Rural Task Force, reveals that appeals to the public by the Prime Minister and others to stay out of the countryside, and the wholescale closure of footpaths, did immense damage to tourism and the rural economy. It shows that a government scheme to try to help rural businesses recover from the disaster was a flop.
In a separate development, Lord Haskins, Mr Blair's personal adviser on the countryside, last week also described the blanket footpath closures as "wrong".
Both interventions support a campaign fought by The Independent on Sunday from the earliest days of the epidemic against the closure of the countryside.
The task force's report is particularly devastating because its membership included no fewer than 11 govern- ment departments, including a representative from 10 Downing Street. Chaired by Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, the force – on either side of the election – included eight ministers.
It concludes that the English tourism industry alone has lost more than £3bn since March as a result of the crisis and that the loss to the countryside may be even greater than this because some would-be visitors switched to cities and the seaside instead.
About 40 per cent of all businesses in the areas most affected by the disease were hit, and many of them lost more than half their income. Many are still struggling to survive.
The report firmly points the finger at appeals to the public to stay out of the countryside by the Government and by the National Farmers' Union, and quotes at length one by the Prime Minister.
On 27 February Mr Blair said: "Foot and mouth disease is a highly infectious virus which can be picked up on our boots, clothes and cars, and carried many miles. By staying away from farmland, by keeping off any footpaths through or next to farms or open and with livestock, we can help the efforts to eradicate this disease."
He announced that the Government was empowering local councils to close footpaths and added: "We hope people will voluntarily stay away in any case."
In fact, the report admits – as The Independent on Sunday reported soon afterwards – there was "a very low probability" that walkers would spread the disease.
The effect of the appeals, says the report, was that by early March almost all footpaths were closed. It adds: "The damaging effect on countryside tourism and the businesses that depend on it, especially in popular walking areas, quickly became apparent. In some areas, visitor numbers fell to nothing."
The closure, it says, also led to children having to walk long distances to school along busy roads. When the Government realised its message "was oversimplified and damaging", it proved very hard to reverse the effects, the report says. "Closures can be, and were, implemented almost overnight, but it has taken much longer – in some cases over six months – to reverse them."
The report saves Mr Blair some embarrassment by saying the "ultra-precautionary" approach was "reasonable", given the lack of knowledge of the spread of the disease at the time. But it also exposes the Small Firms Loans Guarantee Scheme, set up to assist businesses to recover from the crisis, as "poorly targeted and under–subscribed." Although the scheme was "presented as a major element in the package of assistance", only 18 new loans have been given under it, the report says.