The BSE Report cost £16m and took 13 months to complete. Its 16 volumes run to 4,000 pages. But it contains one message: we were misled

A searing indictment of the way the former Conservative government dismissed public fears over "mad cow" disease is revealed by the long-awaited report of the BSE inquiry, published yesterday.

A searing indictment of the way the former Conservative government dismissed public fears over "mad cow" disease is revealed by the long-awaited report of the BSE inquiry, published yesterday.

A catalogue of errors and misjudgements occurred in practically every sphere of government that dealt with the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis over a 10-year period, the £16m inquiry found.

Almost every person in authority, from ministers to civil servants, is criticised by the report for taking a subjective view towards the very real risks of the disease crossing from cattle to humans.

"In their heart of hearts they felt that it would never happen - BSE was not, potentially, a matter of life and death for humans - and this belief was shared by many who could see, objectively, that the potential risk was there," the report says.

For the future, it recommends that when a new disease emerges which might have implications for human health, the government should take precautions to prevent its spread. "Uncertainty can justify action,"the 16-volume, 4,000-page report says. It adds: "An advisory committee should not water down its formulated assessment of risk out of anxiety not to cause public alarm." That happened repeatedly during the epidemic, the threeperson committee found.

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, who chaired the 30-month inquiry, said that the public were misled with constant government reassurances over the safety of beef despite growing fears that public health was in danger.

While there was no cover-up, he said, there was an "embargo" on passing information in the first six months after the epidemic was identified.

Lord Phillips added that the committee was confident that the variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), first identified in 1996, was caused by exposure to BSE.

Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, yesterday announced a compensation scheme to help the 85 families so far affected by vCJD. Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, will next week meet the families to discuss a multi-million pound compensation award. Each family affected could receive up to £100,000, and a trust will be set up which could compensate up to 134,000 people - the maximum who could contract the disease over the next 30 years, according to scientists' estimates.

An immediate payment of £1m will also go to the National CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh to kick-start a care package for those living with the debilitating brain disease.

John Major, who was prime minister between 1990 and 1997, during which time BSE hit its peak and the first cases of vCJD emerged, yesterday told the House of Commons: "All of us must accept our responsibilities and shortcomings."

Tim Yeo, the shadow agriculture spokesman, made a more outspoken public apology. "I accept the criticisms made in the report," he said. "I am truly sorry for what has happened and I apologise to the families who have suffered bereavement and for those people who are still fighting a terrible illness."

The families of the victims broadly welcomed the report and the action announced by the Government. David Churchill, whose 19-year-old son Stephen was the first to die of vCJD in May 1995, called the report "a tremendous achievement".

Although the BSE inquiry's report clears the Government of lying, it criticises the decision to cover up the epidemic in the six months after it was first discovered "After this there was no concealment of information. There was, however, a failure to give the public a balanced picture about risk," Lord Phillips said yesterday. "The public was repeatedly reassured that it was safe to eat beef without always being told that this was because the potentially dangerous bits had been cut out," he said.

"The public was not told that some might have been infected before this precaution was introduced. A false impression was conveyed that BSE posed no risk to humans."

The Phillips inquiry criticised by name 26 former ministers, civil servants and scientists for actions and personal failings that had an impact on the way the BSE epidemic turned into a national crisis killing 80 young people and costing an estimated £4bn.

Lord Phillips said the investigation has resulted in unprecedented scrutiny of the way government works. It criticises the practice of making animal feed from the carcasses of other animals. "Some say that it offended against nature to feed animal protein to ruminants," the report says. "Some say that it was doubly offensive to turn grass-eaters into cannibals. Some say that it was not surprising that a plague was visited upon those that tampered with nature in this way."