Faster response could have cut farm virus in half

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The Independent Online

Foot-and-mouth disease could have been dramatically curtailed if ministers had acted sooner to halt animal movements, a leading government adviser said yesterday.

Imposing a ban on livestock movement 72 hours earlier could have halved the spread of the disease, Professor Mark Woolhouse told MPs.

The expert was giving evidence to a House of Commons select committee which is conducting an inquiry into the impact of foot-and-mouth disease. His testimony will embarrass ministers who have tried to blame farmers who resisted culling for the delay in curtailing the disease.

"With hindsight, if we had imposed a national movement ban three days earlier, our estimation is that the epidemic would have been one third or one half smaller than it actually was," Professor Woolhouse, the Chairman of Veterinary Public Health and Quantitative Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee. "You can translate that into a lot of livestock and a lot of money," he added.

There have been more than 22,000 confirmed cases of the disease, and ministers say it would be remarkable if there are not further cases this autumn. The Government has so far paid out around £1bn in compensation to farmers.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats said that Professor Woolhouse's remarks were further evidence of "mismanagement" of the crisis by the Government. "There is no doubt at all that the earlier that you had stopped the movement of animals the quicker you would have curtailed the disease," said Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary.

Peter Ainsworth, the Tory environment spokesman, said the evidence underlined the need for thorough investigations into the crisis. "The picture is becoming clearer every day that the failure of ministers to act with sufficient speed and effectiveness resulted in the situation getting worse," he said.

Yesterday the select committee was told by another senior scientific adviser that foot-and-mouth disease had "totally devastated" the countryside. Professor Roy Anderson, head of the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College, London, said that the outbreak "could have been far, far worse."

He defended the policy of contiguous culling to contain the outbreak, and said it had saved animals' lives, but agreed that the Government's hesitation on introducing a livestock movement ban had also had a "critical effect."

"It seems ludicrous to say that a three-day delay from 20 February to 23 February was critical, but it was," he said.

Professor David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, defended the decision to slaughter healthy animals on neighbouring farms rather than vaccinate them. He said that it was a sacrifice worth making in order to eradicate the disease. "The only way you are going to get ahead of the outbreak is to get to the next virus factory before it comes in," he said.

* The Food Standards Agency yesterday announced an inquiry into the use of assurance schemes for food after consumers said they were confused by them.

The Government's food watchdog said it will assess whether the kite marks – which include the RSPCA's Freedom Food mark – are clear and accurate. The watchdog will investigate whether there are too many schemes and whether they accurately reflect their claims.