Minister admits farmers 'left in dark' over virus

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The Independent Online

Farmers were left in the dark by ministers in the early stages of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the Government admitted yesterday.

Lord Whitty, the Farming minister, made the frankest admission so far of Whitehall's mishandling of the crisis, after the publication yesterday of a scathing report into the Government's "lamentable" response to the outbreak in north Devon. The report, commissioned by Devon County Council, accused the Government of failing to learn from the experience of the 1967 foot-and-mouth epidemic.

It suggested improvements for dealing with future outbreaks, saying: "We find that in the field there would best be a military command, with police, environmental and veterinary aides at its side from day one of an outbreak."

The report's authors heard evidence that animals suffered inhumane treatment, while Whitehall officials were accused of being insensitive and belligerent.

Lord Whitty said the Government had an emergency plan to combat the spread of serious livestock disease, but conceded it had not been "sufficiently shared" with farmers and that there should have been a "dry-run" of its contingency measures. He added: "The key thing about the report is that it has registered the concerns in Devon and it does raise issues of organisation and communication that the Government has to take seriously. There were communication problems and insensitivities at the beginning. That is not criticism of our staff, but we do need to improve communication and be better prepared if this happens again."

Lord Whitty said ministers were still learning lessons from a series of swine fever cases when foot-and-mouth disease was detected in February. He promised that "future contingency plans for this and other outbreaks should be shared more widely and tested". However, the minister defended the Government's decision not to press ahead with mass vaccination and to continue with the culling strategy.

"It is important to say that throughout this disease the Government has been prepared to look at it [vaccination], but it was important to get the support of farmers in Devon and it was clear that we didn't have the sort of support to implement it," Lord Whitty said. "What I wouldn't accept is that the overall strategy was lamentable."

Devon was one of one of Britain's worst foot-and-mouth "hotspots" with 173 confirmed cases and almost 400,000 animals slaughtered to contain the disease. The council's report calls for more research into vaccination, tightening of import controls on meat and livestock products, and an immediate ban on animal movements from day one of a future outbreak. The report's chairman, Professor Ian Mercer, said the decision by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs not to attend his inquiry had been "deplored by many". In the report's foreword he said it was clear "the outbreak and handling of the ensuing crisis was lamentable".

David Hill, of the National Farmers' Union, said the report showed the Government's handling of the crisis was "incompetent and inadequate". "There's no doubt there was a very heavy-handed, almost jackboot approach to going in there and killing animals. It upset members at a time of their greatest trauma."

Peter Ainsworth, shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, said ministers had swept aside calls for a proper national inquiry into the epidemic. "The Government has turned its back on those requests," he told BBC News 24. "I suspect because the findings are likely to be as lamentable as was found to be in Devon."