Return of the cattle plague

On a small farm in Surrey, the disease every livestock owner dreads has returned just six years after the last outbreak devastated Britain. By Ian Griggs and David Connett
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Quietude had been the defining characteristic of Normandy in Surrey before this weekend. Only the distant sound of passing trains bound for London or neighbouring Aldershot disturbed the peace of this tranquil, leafy village.

Until now, the biggest mystery it harboured was the origin of its name. Local historians are dismissive of links to the homeland of William the Conqueror, believing instead it is simply a corruption of No Man's Land, an area of wasteland between neighbouring parishes.

Yesterday it resembled its lexicographical origins after finding itself at the centre of the UK's latest foot and mouth outbreak. With media helicopters buzzing overhead, police roadblocks restricting everybody's ability to enter or leave the vicinity and the sinister sight of ministry men clad in bio-hazard suits busy in its lanes and fields, it could be mistaken for the film set of Village of the Damned.

The village itself, having woken up astonished to find itself at Ground Zero of this potential catastrophe, was, like the rest of Britain, holding its breath, trying to make sense of what is happening here. Before then the biggest crisis villagers had faced was the loss of the local store and the closure of the post office.

Most expressed shock and disbelief that it had happened here. Some, like businessman Andrew Backhurst, have been quick to realise the implications are likely to be devastating. "Everyone here is gutted," he says. "We weren't affected in 2001. That was something that happened to other people. This time we are at the centre of it, it's on our doorstep. People round here keep sheep and goats as pets and they may have to be slaughtered and most of us will have our livelihoods affected in some way before this is all over." He said he was already considering the implications for his animal feeds business.

Michael More-Molyneux, who farms 1,400 acres five miles from Normandy, said they were hopeful there would be no repeat of 2001 but said he was concerned for his animals. "Luckily for us the wind is going north to south, so it is not coming in our direction. Hopefully they [the Government] have got on top of it in time. They have been quicker off the mark than last time."

He said there were a lot of animals moving across the country then. "We are keeping our fingers crossed, but there really is nothing we can do about it except wait. We have shut the farm off and are making sure anyone coming onto the farm is stopped. We have also diverted some of the footpaths which go through fields of young stock. We are still losers all round. It doesn't do confidence in agriculture or tourism or British exports any good and it will damage confidence in British products."

The harvest was the immediate problem, landowner Jonathan Blake said. "It is very worrying. This is the first good weather we have had for months and farmers round here are going to want to bring their hay in before it rains again or it will be ruined and they will lose thousands of pounds. I don't know what they will feed the horses this winter if that happens."

An identical disquiet had spread to Elstead, near Godalming, Surrey, yesterday after it was revealed that the infected animals in Normandy were linked to a farm run by Derrick Pride and his family. Government and police sources confirmed that the Normandy animals were part of a beef-fattening operating run by the Prides. Their family home, Woolfords Farm, near Elstead, was also sealed off, as was the farm shop which sold the beef.

A neighbouring farmer, asking not to be named, said: "We know them well and they have a fantastic shop. This will be terrible for them."

Local resident Norman McCrumb said: "I know they definitely have cattle over in Normandy. That is right near Wanborough, where the exclusion zone is."

Memories are still fresh of the foot and mouth epidemic which ravaged Britain in 2001. The vivid images of funeral pyres of burning cattle and no-go zone that most of the British countryside became remain in the collective consciousness.

The rest of Britain, like Normandy, was also holding its breath at news of the latest outbreak. The spectre of a repeat of the 2001 outbreak was a chilling one. That outbreak saw near-panic break out across the country and confidence in the Blair government's ability to cope slump, eventually sparking three major inquiries.

That epidemic saw 2,000 confirmed cases of the disease throughout the UK and the wholesale slaughter of millions of other animals in a bid to halt the spread of the disease.

The crisis took thousands of farming families and other rural businesses to the brink of financial collapse. Tourism – another vital source of income in rural areas – was also severely hit as events as varied as country fetes to the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races were cancelled and footpaths throughout the countryside were closed down to ramblers in a bid to prevent the disease spreading. Conservative estimates put the economic cost of the disaster at more than £8bn.

The spark that lit the blue touchpaper in February 2001 was the discovery of the virus in pigs which had gone for slaughter at an Essex abattoir. Within days the hunt for the source of the infection had spread across the country bringing devastation as it did. By the end of March, the disease was at its height with up to 50 new cases a day.

A few weeks later Tony Blair took the decision to delay the general and local elections. As hundreds of thousands of animals were Government's grip on the crisis began to grow as it became clear they were struggling to contain the outbreak.

Controversy raged over the ministerial decision not to vaccinate animals against the virus. During the course of the eight-month epidemic, more than 2,000 farms were infected. Many more farms had their animals slaughtered because of their proximity to the outbreaks.

Huge bonfires built of cattle carcasses were lit as the authorities were overwhelmed by the numbers involved. Vast palls of black, foul-smelling smoke enveloped the countryside as more animals were bulldozed into the flames. Despairing farmers and animal welfare groups protested strongly at what they saw as the needless slaughter of many animals.

The economic consequences hit British agriculture hard. British meat exports were banned until February 2002 and many other rural enterprises were left counting the cost for long afterwards.

Public and parliamentary disquiet at the chaos that ensued forced the Government to order three separate inquiries into events. The 2002 report by Sir Iain Anderson into the ministerial handling of the crisis warned starkly: "We seem destined to repeat the mistakes of history." In the bluntly titled "Lessons to be Learned Inquiry", Anderson noted that many of the recommendations following the previous outbreak in 1967-68 were not properly implemented.

"In the Northumberland Report of 1968, and further back still, similar conclusions to ours were drawn about the need for preparation, the rapid deployment of resources and the central importance of speed, above all speed-to-slaughter of infected animals."

He was also critical of the Government's failure to maintain and update contingency plans. As a result he noted: "No one in command understood in sufficient detail what was happening", particularly in the key early days of the outbreak. These factors, together with a lack of communication between government departments and agencies involved meant "the wider resources of government were not mobilised early on". As a result, he concluded: "A sense of panic appeared and decision making became haphazard and messy."

Farmers are especially keen to discover whether the Government has learned the 2001 lessons. Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, captured the mood of many experts, when he said: "The nation is holding its breath, hoping that the outbreak is an isolated incident. Whatever the reality, any response must be carried out without delay and in a way that avoids the wastage of healthy animals so prominent in the 2001 outbreak."

Yesterday Downing Street was anxious to stress the contrast between the Government's response now with events in 2001.

Gordon Brown was alerted only an hour into his summer break with his family in Dorset by Bruce Mann, the director of civil contingencies in the Cabinet Office. Local veterinary officers were on the scene in Surrey and the area had already been cordoned off.

After the Mann briefing, Brown spoke to newly appointed Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, who was on holiday in Italy.

Discussing the situation, both men agreed it would be necessary for Benn to cut short his holiday and return to London as soon as possible.

In contrast with 2001, the Government's emergency planning committee, Cobra, was summoned to sit the following day. In 2001 it only sat down to discuss the crisis almost a month after the outbreak.

During the flurry of phone calls that followed, including a briefing from Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds, it was agreed that a civil contingency plan to prevent a repeat of 2001 was activated, including the ban on all animal movements.

Yesterday Mr Brown rose at 5am to reach London by 8am for Cobra. Even before his arrival he had spoken to the National Farmers' Union (NFU), Cabinet Office Minister Ed Miliband, Farming Minister Jeff Rooker and again to Benn so as to keep them abreast of developments.

Mindful of the 2001 impact on tourism, ministers decided not to close countryside footpaths this time.

The aim was to contain the outbreak quickly and decisively, and, as one government source said, brutally if necessary. Any animals that could have been contaminated would be immediately slaughtered while a movement ban would be vigorously imposed together with a meat export ban.

Funeral pyres were to be avoided at all costs and vaccinations will only be considered as a measure of last resort, officials suggested yesterday, and then only if containment failed, not least because they could ruin the beef industry and stop exports from going overseas.

"We are determined to learn lessons from last time," said a source close to Gordon Brown. "We are committed to the success of our agriculture industry as well tourism."

Sir Brian Follett, who chaired the Royal Society inquiry into the 2001 outbreak, said the authorities had correctly responded to the latest outbreak. "The great lesson from 2001," he said, "was speed. Outbreaks of foot and mouth will occur and the requirements are to contain it as an outbreak and do everything we can to stop it turning it into an epidemic."

Peter Kendall, the president of the NFU, said the 2001 report was fresh in the minds of those dealing with the latest outbreak. "I think the Government's reacted well in immediately banning all movements."

Farmers, he said, understood that the Government had to act swiftly. "The delay that occured [in 2001] caused further spread. Going through some short-term inconvenience now is a price worth paying if we can restrict this and keep it to a single location."

Last night the decisive message was getting through to the bewildered residents of Normandy. Gary Philips was comforted: "The fact that Gordon Brown has cut his holiday short shows the importance they are placing on this."

What is foot and mouth?

A highly contagious viral disease, which gets its name from the way it develops. In cattle, the virus grows inside the stomach and intestines, travels into the bloodstream and re-emerges in the mouth and on the hooves.

Which animals are affected?

Cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and deer. It is not normally fatal in adults but can kill younger animals.

What are the symptoms?

Fever, painful blisters in the mouth, further blistering on the hooves. It can cause a drastic loss in productivity, reducing the amount of milk that livestock such as cows can produce.

How is it spread?

The virus can travel through the air, but the normal route is from animal to animal via body fluids in blisters, saliva, dung and milk. People, vehicles and animals can carry it rapidly around the country.

How is it stopped?

Preferred method is culling. High temperatures and sunlight can destroy the virus, and it can be stopped by some disinfectants. It is dangerous for long periods in infected frozen meat, thriving in a cold, dark atmosphere.

How costly can it be?

The 2001 outbreak is estimated to have cost up to £8.5bn. Lasting 11 months, it caused the slaughter of 6.5 to 10 million animals, and ruined many farmers and rural businesses.

What about vaccination?

The Government is reluctant to vaccinate livestock as the disease in an infected animal becomes harmless a short time after the animal is culled. Vaccination may be used to prevent the spread of foot and mouth if it spirals out of control, rather than as a cure.

Can humans catch it?

Rarely. The last case in the UK was in 1966.

Is it safe to drink milk?

There are no recorded cases of humans being infected from drinking pasteurised milk.

What are the reactions to an outbreak?

The farm where the outbreak began is quarantined. All its animals were culled yesterday. Farm animals are banned from travelling, and security measures, such as disinfectant mats, must be in place at all farms.

Is there a cure?

No. Most animals recover naturally in time.