Deadly Scottish virus takes its toll of Forsyth

'Tony Marlow stayed, probably under the impression that the E in E coli stands for Europe'
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The Independent Online
Something was up. My colleagues from the Scottish press were filing into the gallery (taking a break from their day jobs begging on London street corners, presumably), and the benches were filling up with Scots MPs. When the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, took his seat, I knew we were in for another bite of E coli 1057, the virulent food organism that claimed the lives of 16 pensioners just before Christmas. A statement was due.

Some English MPs stayed to listen. Eric Martlew, the Labour member for Carlisle, did so presumably because there is little to stop a virus travelling (like Border raiders before it) the short distance between the Scottish lowlands and his constituency. Unfortunately for Mr Martlew, he fell under suspicion when a bleep went off in the chamber, followed by a chiming watch. Speaker Betty - a passionate hater of bleepers - frowned and Eric blushed, as the guiltless always do, when falsely accused. Tony Marlow (Rampant Europhobe, Northampton North) also remained, sprawled across a bench, probably under the impression that the E in E coli stands for Europe.

The last year has aged Mr Forsyth. When 1996 began he was still an enfant terrible of the right - lacking Michael Portillo's charisma, but making up for it in rat-like cunning and intelligence. Then came Dunblane (which affected him immensely), the consequent Tory failure to understand the public mood on guns and - finally - the E coli outbreak, which he described yesterday as "one of the worst of its sort in the world". Yesterday, he looked haggard and middle-aged.

True to form, the interim report of the Pennington Group, chaired by Professor Pennington, had been available to the Government on New Year's Day, but to the Opposition only minutes before the ministerial statement a fortnight later. Also true to form, Mr Forsyth's approach was to take every action outlined in the report; to lock, bolt and armour plate the stable door now that the horse had bolted. There would be more research, more surveillance, more enforcement of hygiene regulations and better handling of the next crisis.

His shadow, the avian George Robertson, was not placated. Had not the same Professor Pennington asked for funding for research last November and been refused? What advice had the Scottish Health minister (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie) given about the need for public disclosure on affected outlets? "Is this not the classic way this Government treats every crisis it faces - react to events rather than shaping them and always too little, too late?"

But this criticism is universal; under which party has there been no disaster, no tragedy? This is no real-life Dr Finlay plot-line, where plague comes to Tannochbrae, and is traced to the greedy butcher, the complacent health officer and a basic lack of hygiene.

And Scots perceptions that the tragedy has not received fair coverage simply because it happened in their country, are also wide of the mark. Had 16 Scottish teenagers died, the story would have dominated the London headlines. But no one (except their immediate families) really minds too much if old folk die - living pensioners have a call on our sympathies; dead ones are part of nature's plan. That is why healthy 80-year-olds enter hospitals for treatment to in-growing toenails and emerge dead - and no one bats an eyelid. Or makes a statement.