Scientists warned on Tuesday night that the Government's decision to ease restrictions on animal movements risked an acceleration in the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.
Two members of the Government's foot-and-mouth science advisory group spoke out after Lord Whitty, the junior rural affairs minister, announced a limited relaxation of controls on the livestock trade, despite increasing numbers of cases in Northumberland.
Yesterday, Lord Whitty admitted that permitting more animal movements would increase the risk of spreading foot-and-mouth but insisted that controls and checks on animals would minimise the threat. He acknowledged the fresh outbreak around Hexham was "a setback" but said relaxing rules on animal movements was necessary to allow farmers in areas free from foot-and-mouth to move their animals for welfare and commercial reasons.
Under the changes, farmers within counties either free of foot-and-mouth or disease-free but still at risk will be able to move animals under licence. Farms in counties deemed high risk will only be able to move livestock within the county borders. Restrictions on infected areas will remain in place
Even licensed will only be done after veterinary inspection and sheep from at-risk areas will have to be tested for the disease before they can be moved.
But Dr Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, a leading epidemiologist, warned that greater movement would "inevitably" risk spreading the disease. "One has to be extremely careful with movements," he said. "You are inevitably going to increase the risk of transmission."
Another member of the Government's advisory group, Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University, said: "We want to avoid another Hexham. We have to accept that there is a theoretical risk; avoiding that is very important, [we must] make sure it remains theoretical."
Lord Whitty said that vets had moved to limit the outbreak in Northumberland which has raised fears in Scotland where farms have been disease-free for nearly three months. But he insisted that increasing livestock trade was necessary. "It's a balance of risk argument," he said. "Autumn is the busiest time of year and the volume of movements will inevitably increase but we will need to tighten the regime that covers that."
Last night, the Tories called on the Government to publish the scientists' advice. Damien Green, the party's agriculture spokesman, said: "On the surface this looks a very peculiar time to be relaxing movement restrictions. We would therefore call on the Government to publish the latest scientific advice which has led to this decision."
Tim Bennett, the deputy president of the National Farmers' Union, said: "Farmers accept that the priority must be to prevent any further spread of disease... but some of these producers have had animals on their farms for six months and are now at their wits' end."Reuse content