Inquiry condemns handling of farm virus crisis

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The handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis was lamentable, and at times insensitive, barbaric and medieval, a report published today concludes.

The handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis was lamentable, and at times insensitive, barbaric and medieval, a report published today concludes.

The preliminary findings of the only public inquiry into the epidemic called for a national contingency plan to respond to any future outbreaks.

The hearing in Devon said that it had received reports of "insensitive and belligerent operatives and bungled culls", with one witness describing the livestock slaughter as "carnage by computer".

The inquiry condemned import controls on meat as inadequate, and said the spread of the disease had been inevitable after the "regrettable" decision to delay the implementation of the ban on transporting livestock. Lessons did not appear to have been learnt from the 1967 outbreak and recommendations from an official report then were ignored, it said.

The report recommended tightening import controls on meat and livestock products; greater government priority for scientific research into vaccination; an immediate ban on animal movements from day one of any outbreak; and restoring the "greatly overstretched" state veterinary service to "enable it to respond more effectively to a future outbreak". It recommended that where mass burials were needed, they should take place on sites chosen after consulting the public. Burning carcasses on pyres was "barbaric and medieval" and should never happen again, it said.

The eight-strong panel finished its hearing earlier this month in Devon – one of the hardest hit counties with 173 confirmed cases and about 390,000 animals destroyed – after hearing50 witnesses.

The chairman, Professor Ian Mercer, says in the report's forward that it was clear "that the outbreak and handling of the ensuing crisis was lamentable. Reports received by the inquiry of insensitive and even belligerent operatives and bungled culls do little to enhance the professional reputation of those involved, from ministers downwards".

He added: "The crisis that a major outbreak generates is not an excuse for the Government and its agencies to override the welfare of individuals or communities, or to ignore the long-established rules for the management of the environment. As in the contiguous culling operation, the insensitive treatment of ordinary individuals and communities, confronted by events outside their control, did nothing to foster a united front or provide community leadership against the common enemy – the disease itself."

Professor Mercer emphasised that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' decision not to attend the public inquiry had been "deplored by many". Instead, it gave written answers.

The report says that a national contingency plan should "cascade" down to parish level, and should be reviewed, tested and rehearsed as often as every five years. The inquiry called on the Government to provide cash help to the "forgotten victims of the whole tragedy" – the 4,500 farmers living with the restrictions on moving animals.

The preliminary findings have been sent to the Government's policy commission on the future of farming and food – one of three national inquiries into the foot-and-mouth crisis.