How ministers had to eat their words

They said there would be no CJD epidemic and they said the beef industry must not collapse. Now both may happen
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The Independent Online
TWO hours before he faced Commons questions over BSE last Thursday, John Major sat down to lunch in Downing Street. There was a certain inevitability about the day's menu: beef. "I seem to be eating it all the time," the Prime Minister told an aide. Whether he, or Tony Blair (who also ate beef on Thursday) or the rest of the population will continue to do so is open to question.

Ministers are in no doubt of the scale of the calamity now unfolding. On the one hand, there is the possibility, identified by the chairman of the scientific advisory committee on BSE, that thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people could fall victim to a fatal disease. On the other there is the prospect that an entire industry, the flower of our agricultural system, could be devastated at a cost of billions of pounds and thousands of jobs.

For the Conservatives, too, there is potential for enormous damage. This is striking in their rural heartland and it touches what has long been the Government's weakest point: public trust in its honesty and judgement. Ministers stand accused of failing to act early enough to protect consumers, of being in the pocket of the farming lobby and of telling us food was safe when it was not.

This crisis has stolen upon ministers with astonishing suddenness. It was only 16 days ago, on 8 March, that Dr Rob Will, the director of the national CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh, contacted the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) to tell it of new and worrying findings that pointed to a possible link between BSE in cattle and CJD in humans.

It was only nine days ago that Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, and Douglas Hogg, Minister of Agriculture, were briefed on these findings. From then, the experts were in almost continuous session, weighing the evidence and considering what should be done, until Mr Dorrell made his announcement last Wednesday afternoon.

For ministers, for the farming industry and for consumers of beef, what Mr Dorrell had to announce represented the nightmare scenario: 10 people had gone down with a new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and the most likely explanation was that BSE had crossed over from cattle to humans.

The story of the Government's handling of the BSE issue has been a complex and troubled one, dominated by two great fears: first, that there might be an epidemic of brain disease among the British population and, second, that consumer panic at home and abroad might wreak havoc through the beef industry and put tens of thousands of jobs at risk.

The epidemic has not happened and may not happen, but scientific advice at the highest level is that it could happen, and that for most of the population it is too late to take precautions. The crisis of the beef industry is already upon us. After trying to avoid two disasters, we may suffer both. What went wrong?

It began with a delay that seems to have been literally fatal. BSE was first officially diagnosed in Britain in November 1986; this was publicly confirmed the following year. In April 1988, the Government convened a meeting of experts under Sir Richard Southwood to assess the "implications" of the disease. One of these was whether BSE might transfer to human beings.

Sir Richard recalled last week: "We thought it was remotely possible that BSE would affect humans. We thought it was unlikely because we thought BSE was just scrapie transferred from sheep to cows." Scrapie is a disease of sheep that has been known in Britain since the 18th century, and in all that time there has been no known case of it jumping the species barrier to humans.

But a "remote" possibility was still a possibility, and the committee recommended action. "We met on 20 June, our first and only meeting, and the very next day wrote to the Minister of Agriculture recommending the destruction of all infected animals."

That month BSE was made a notifiable disease, requiring farmers to report cases. In July, the feeding of cattle or sheep protein to other cattle or sheep was halted - this was and is thought to be the route by which scrapie passed to cattle. But as Sir Richard points out, "Of course, the stable door had been open for some years."

In August 1988, the Government announced that infected cattle should be slaughtered, but here it made what is now thought to have been its first big

mistake: against the advice of the Southwood committee, farmers were told they would receive only half the value of the animals in compensation. This left them with a powerful incentive not to report fears that their animals were infected, but to sell them for slaughter as healthy. The error was tentatively acknowledged last week when a junior Scottish minister, the Earl of Lindsay, said: "We possibly unwittingly allowed the temptation that some farmers may have succumbed to." Full compensation was eventually introduced in February 1990.

In December 1988, the Government implemented another Southwood recommendation, ordering the disposal of milk from infected cattle. Thus far, the approach had been a step-by-step one, designed to tackle the threat from the disease without causing alarm among consumers. The measures taken were primarily directed towards stamping out the disease, and not towards protecting consumers, and the reasons for this were made plain in the Southwood report, which was finally published in February 1989.

With certain caveats, the report predicted that BSE would infect a maximum of 20,000 cows - a very small proportion of the national herd - and that these cows were a "dead-end host" incapable of passing on the disease. The committee said it was "most unlikely that BSE will have any implications for human health".

In April 1989 the Government implemented another Southwood recommendation, creating the BSE Research Consultative Committee with Dr David Tyrrell as its chairman. By now, public concern at the persistence of the disease was growing, and fears about the safety of beef were constantly returning to the front pages. This was the time when John Gummer, then agriculture minister, publicly fed his daughter a hamburger.

In November 1989 the first measure directly intended to protect consumers from BSE was finally taken. Bovine offal such as brains, spinal cords, gut, tonsils and spleen, thought to be the most likely parts to carry the infection, were banned for human consumption.

Three full years had elapsed since the first official diagnosis of BSE and probably four since the disease first manifested itself in the British herd. This interval is crucial, for in that period virtually every meat- eating person in the country may have been at risk of infection.

Critics of the Government's approach to the disease are outraged that this delay took place. "During this period, the entire population of the UK would have been exposed to BSE," according to Stephen Dealler, consultant microbiologist at Burnley General Hospital, who has studied BSE since 1988.

Mr Dorrell admitted last week, speaking of the 10 new instances of CJD: "The most likely explanation is that these cases are linked to exposure to BSE before the offal ban in 1989."

They are the first, and CJD can take years to manifest itself. The question now is how many more there will be. Every scientist accepts the possibility that the number may be small, but most of them also agree that it could equally be very large.

John Pattison, the Government's chief adviser on BSE, speaks of an epidemic on the scale of Aids: "It could be tens of thousands, and cumulatively it could be hundreds of thousands." Mr Dealler believes the most likely scenario is that around 10 million people would suffer CJD as a result of infection through cattle, although many of these would die of other conditions first. Even this is not the highest estimate: Richard Lacey of Leeds University, the microbiologist who has warned loudest and longest about the danger from BSE, says: "The worst-case scenario is that half the country is vulnerable."

NO GOVERNMENT would deliberately allow such a situation to arise, and Mr Dorrell and Mr Hogg insisted last week that ministers had been guided entirely by their scientific advisers. But scientists who have long believed the infection could transfer to humans said ministers had consistently picked advisers to give them the advice they wanted to hear. Mr Dealler said: "If you wanted somebody to tell you that BSE wasn't a risk, you could find someone. If you wanted somebody to tell you that BSE was going to go away, you could find someone. If you wanted somebody who was going to tell you just what you wanted to hear, you could find one of those as well. And that's what happened to these major committees."

Dr Harash Narang, a leading microbiologist who used to work for the Government's Public Health Laboratory Service, was one of the first to claim a link between BSE and CJD. He questioned whether the Government's advisers really were experts on BSE, saying: "To me, they are like people who go to see Shakespeare once a month and at the end of the year they are called experts on Shakespeare. This is a very special field. They're definitely not experts in this field."

Professor Lacey took a similar view: "They identify the people whose views are concordant with their policy. They wanted to hear advice which supported taking little action."

These charges are rejected by scientists who acted as advisers. Sir Richard Southwood said: "I think, I hope, the Government picked people who it thought were expert, but who would actually give it practical advice. I think anyone, except one or two people, would have said the probabilities at that time were that BSE was going to be like scrapie."

Precipitate action, says Sir Richard, could have been extremely damaging. "If the Government had destroyed the British beef industry on a hunch which turned out to be wrong, they would have been accused of taking too much cognisance of one particular viewpoint."

This was the fear at the forefront of ministers' minds, for previous food scares - the eggs, for example - had shown the extraordinary power of consumer fear, and the beef industry is extremely vulnerable.

Every year about 3 million cattle worth pounds 4bn are slaughtered in Britain. Milk sales are worth pounds 3.5bn a year. Cheese, yoghurt, and butter sales are worth the same again. This turnover supports 640,000 people. If confidence in the industry were lost, the price of restoring it would be enormous. Ministers admitted last week that the mass slaughter of the country's 12 million cattle herd was an option. This would mean the disappearance of all British beef, butter, milk and cheese for two and a half years.

The cost of this in compensation to farmers could be anything up to pounds 4bn and the cost of importing substitute goods would be between pounds 7bn and pounds 8bn.

Throughout the whole BSE saga, the Government has been kept keenly aware of these dangers, for the farming industry is a bedrock of the Conservative Party and enjoys ready access to the corridors of power. This closeness has exposed the Government to further criticism.

More than 40 Conservative MPs - one in eight - register an interest in landowning or farming, including a clutch of cabinet ministers and ex- ministers. In addition, there is a time-honoured tradition of Tory farmers holding office in the Ministry of Agriculture, upheld to this day by Tim Boswell, the rural affairs minister who is a self-employed partner in the family farming business at Aynho on the Northamptonshire-Oxfordshire border. He also has "a small quantity of let land in Essex".

And the Tory farmers are not slow to make their views known. In the debate on BSE last week, Christopher Gill, MP for Ludlow, said that "the risks of contracting CJD from whatever source are infinitesimal". He has a farm in Shropshire.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, MP for Lancaster, said: "It is most important that no one should stir up unnecessary panic where panic is not required." She owns a farm in Norfolk.

Paul Marland, the MP for West Gloucestershire, urged the Secretary of State for Health not to react to the issue at all because "such health scares and food scares have occurred before". He owns a farm in Gloucestershire and is also chairman of the Tory backbench agricultural committee, now very busy putting pressure on ministers.

Labour MPs regard this as another form of sleaze. David Hinchliffe, MP for Wakefield, says: "People believe the Government have disregarded the issue simply because they are more concerned with the interests of farmers and the meat trade than with the health of the nation."

But rural Tory MPs say they are only doing their job. John Greenway, the member for Ryedale in Yorkshire, says of the beef farmers: "These are my people. It is absolutely crucial that somebody speaks for them."

FOR NINE years the Government has insisted that beef was safe for us to eat. There was, it said, no evidence to suggest that BSE could jump to humans. For seven years, since 1989, it has insisted that any slight risk there might have been to humans was removed by excluding brains and other offal from the human food chain.

In all that time the beef industry suffered relatively little from public distrust, and nobody was proved to have died from BSE. Ministers felt they had the balance of caution between public safety and public panic right.

A week ago, all that changed, and those who were involved will never forget it. On Monday, officials were already considering the slaughter of the whole national herd. On Tuesday, scientists and officials were in session all day and late into the night. Sir Kenneth Calman, the Chief Medical Officer, barely had time to visit Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood.

According to one member of the Seac committee, Professor Jeffrey Almond, it was a grim business."If you're faced, as I was faced on Tuesday, with the consequences of your decision meaning the possible destruction of the national herd, mass panic of people being scared half to death, you are determined to get it as right as you can get it."

They met again at 8am the following morning and Mr Dorrell and Mr Hogg joined them. Their recommendations were taken by Mr Dorrell across Whitehall to the Cabinet.

Mr Dorrell was determined to get the information into the public domain reasonably swiftly to minimise criticisms that the Government was keeping back information. A relative newcomer to the Department of Health (at least as Secretary of State) he was somewhat insulated from the embarrassment that the news would inevitably cause.

In the meantime the department was drawing up contingency plans. An information freephone was planned and the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather was brought in to think up a publicity campaign. On Tuesday these plans were scrapped when it became clear that the Daily Mirror was going to run the story the following day.

Advance notice of the crisis had reached Downing Street on Monday, and so great was Mr Major's concern that, the following day, he saw Mr Dorrell and Mr Hogg in person. On Wednesday the Cabinet convened at 10.45am. Officially the purpose was to consider the Government's political strategy up to the election, but they were forced to spend an hour on BSE.

Much discussion centred on the correct tone of the statementbut over time agreement emerged in favour of the "reasonable, science-based" approach that the Secretary of State for Health adopted in the House. Then something occurred that will be familiar to office workers the world over: just as Mr Dorrell's staff neared the final draft, the computer crashed. It was a power cut.

Once the statement had been made, Mr Dorrell and Mr Hogg made a host of media appearances, trying, unsuccessfully as it proved, to calm public nerves. The following day they reported back to Cabinet to assess the political and public reaction. Mr Hogg concentrated on the likely impact on the meat industry, but in the course of the meeting ministers learned that British beef had been banned from France.

Jeffrey Almond recalls his feelings as these events unfolded last week. "On Wednesday lunchtime I felt like crying. Then I heard the news on Thursday about the European bans, and you realise that your decision had already cost half a billion pounds worth of export trade, and possibly a hundred thousand people turned out of work."

THE COUNTRY must wait and see. Will there be more CJD deaths? If so, will it be tens, or thousands? Can the beef industry be saved? If so, at what cost?

As for the blame, the Government stands by its argument: "We have taken the view that we will always be led by the state of scientific knowledge. That obviously involves a risk if the scientific understanding changes."

Labour has already moved to challenge that assumption, declaring that the issue "is one of competence in government ministers in providing prompt action to reassure the public and safeguard our meat industry".

Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, has a catalogue of charges: failure tosurvey the brains of cattle sent for slaughter; failure to compensate farmers in full; delay over compulsory slaughter and most of all delay over introducing the ban on human consumption of cattle offal.

Just at the moment when the public needs advice it can put its faith in - on the safety of eating beef and of feeding it to children - the Government's trustworthiness is again in question.

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