Secret plans to vaccinate animals for foot and mouth

Farming crisis » Government under pressure for U-turn as scientific committee changes side
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The Independent Online

The Government's top advisers on foot and mouth have been drawing up secret plans to vaccinate animals to combat the disease.

The special interdepartmental scientific committee chaired by Professor David King, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, has commissioned the plan to try to stop a fresh epidemic breaking out while sheep are moved off the hills to lowland farms for winter grazing. Five million animals are expected to be moved during the autumn.

The Army moved into Northumberland yesterday to organise the slaughter and disposal of thousands of sheep and cattle after the latest outbreak in the Allendale area. The number of confirmed cases since the epidemic began last February is expected to exceed 2,000 early this week.

Gareth Davies – a member of the committee and the former head of the epidemiology unit at the official Central Veterinary Laboratory – was asked to start drawing up the plans in July. The committee has set itself until the end of this month to finalise them.

The move – which would propose a separate vaccination package for each regions to address differences in the way sheep are moved in different areas – is the latest sign that pressure is building for a U-turn in the Government's foot and mouth strategy.

Ministers are reported to be prepared to authorise a limited programme of vaccination in six weeks, if the disease has not been eradicated by then. Lord Haskins, the Prime Minister's top rural adviser, has long been in favour of it, and Ewen Cameron, the chairman of the Countryside Agency, called last week for it to be tried out.

The entire scientific committee now supports vaccination after formerly sceptical members changed their minds, sources said. It is now only being blocked by Dr Jim Scudamore, the Government's Chief Vet, and the farming unions. Ben Gill, the President of the National Farmers' Union, recently described the case for vaccination as "bilge".

Mr Davies – who dealt with the last European outbreak in Greece in 1996 – has said: "If we had vaccinated during late March, we would have been spared the loss of thousands of animals and the public revulsion at the carcasses strewn across the countryside. However, I had underestimated the almost mystical belief in the superiority of slaughter as a method of control. This has allowed all sorts of false statements to flourish."

In a further blow to the case against vaccination, the Government has now admitted that the British are already eating vaccinated meat. The National Farmers' Union's insistence that people would never consume it was one of the factors that persuaded the Government to abandon tentative plans to vaccinate this spring, even though experts pointed out that they already ate meat inoculated against other diseases.

Now, in a letter to the Soil Association, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that 18,718 tons of beef were imported from Brazil – which vaccinates against foot and mouth – in the year up to last May. It says it has "no reason" to trace the meat and so has no detailed information about when or where it is sold.