'Alarmist' fears held up action on BSE

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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT officials feared "ill-informed" publicity over mad cow disease could cause serious "public alarm" and lead to "hysterical demands for immediate draconian government measures".

They were also concerned that this might in turn upset beef exports, the BSE Inquiry heard yesterday.

But their actions were defended by a former senior civil servant who said that they were "understandable".

The warnings were included in a confidential memo, released yesterday by the Inquiry, to a junior minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) in July 1987.

The memo, from the head of the ministry's Animal Health Division, J C Suich, and addressed to the then parliamentary secretary, Donald Thompson, said any harsh measures on Britain's part "could alarm other countries and lead them to prohibit imports of cattle, semen and embryos from this country."

It stated that Maff officials advised that the best plan was to acknowledge that BSE existed, and to emphasise that it was being "thoroughly investigated" - but not do anything until more was known about it, "beyond attempting to ensure that publicity is well-informed and not unduly alarmist".

Seven months elapsed between the identification of BSE as a disease and ministers being informed, according to another memo presented to the Inquiry. That was dated June 5 1987, to Mr Thompson, from the then Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) Howard Rees.

Giving evidence to the Inquiry yesterday, Sir Michael Franklin, Permanent Secretary at MAFF until October 1987, said he had met with the Chief Veterinary Officer to discuss the implications of BSE on June 10, the day before the 1987 General Election.

Minutes of the meeting recorded that the CVO's prime concern was how to handle publicity about BSE.

Yesterday Sir Michael said: "I think it is very understandable that when you have a new phenomenon about which you know so little, there is a danger that it can be misunderstood. It would be the concern of the CVO not to arouse undue alarm and concern."

He had no criticism of the time it had taken officials and scientists to bring BSE to ministers' notice. "It seems to me that the scientists were wrestling with trying to understand what it was. Even in June there was a great deal not known. I think one has to leave it to the sense of scientists to judge at what point they could make a meaningful statement."

Asked if in hindsight he could see any shortcomings in the ministry from which lessons might be learned, he said: "I don't think I can put my finger on a particular organisation or weakness that made the problem worse than it proved to be."