Vaccination trials needed to fight future epidemics

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The Independent Online

The Government's senior rural affairs adviser has called for vaccination trials to combat foot-and-mouth disease, and insisted that the public will never again tolerate mass slaughter of livestock.

Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Countryside Agency, urged a change of policy to prevent epidemics after a new cluster of cases in Northumberland. "I would like to see a vaccination policy tested in the current outbreak because I don't think the public would stand for a mass slaughter policy in any future outbreak," he said.

As farmers' leaders called for a fundamental review of disease controls, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said discussion on vaccination was being kept open.

Mr Cameron was speaking at the launch of a report on the economic impact of foot-and-mouth disease, which catalogues in detail the effects of the epidemic that has ravaged large parts of rural Britain this year. "This crisis has underlined the vulnerability of rural economies – how closely related agriculture is to rural tourism and tourism is to the provision of local services," he said.

The report found that 80 per cent of hotels and guest houses had lost trade in the two months after the epidemic was discovered in February. More than 10 per cent of hotels found takings slumped by more than half, and a third had income cut by more than a quarter.

The report found severe falls in farm incomes and serious social problems caused by the disease. Telephone calls to the farm crisis network increased by as much as 20 times because of the stress caused by the outbreak.

Mr Cameron said: "Much of that national loss was due to a fall in overseas visitors that has hit the cities, but in turn the British people have switched their spending towards urban and seaside breaks, the High Street and DIY.

"This has meant that the economic impact on the countryside is disproportionately large, and concentrated in areas where average incomes were low and business vitality already suffering."

Mr Cameron called for "sustained action" to bring tourists back to rural areas and urgent measures to encourage the diversification of rural businesses.

The report highlights how difficulties in rural areas have affected other parts of the economy. Falls in tourism from abroad had hit urban areas, but cities have benefited from increasing numbers of British visitors deserting rural areas.

Farms were unable to pay for new decorations to their bed and breakfast accommodation while rural fairs and shows had been cancelled because of the disease, resulting in a loss of income to tent hire services.

Some 34 per cent of tourism-related businesses reported business volumes below normal in June and many visitor attractions – 1,000 at the end of April – closed because of the outbreak. The report found that between 20,000 and 30,000 tourism jobs could be affected in some way by the crisis.

It warned that "it may take years to rebuild breeding herds on cull farms" and said that long-term consequences for agriculture could be a decline in sales, increasing debt and declines in demand for associated industries such as the animal feed trade and livestock hauliers.

The authors added: "The outbreak has had a significant social impact, although it will take some time before the lasting effects can be fully appreciated.

"Farmers are not alone in suffering the consequences. It has had a deleterious effect upon the health and well-being of many within and beyond the farming community."

The National Farmers' Union said it was not opposed in principle to vaccination, and said the foot-and-mouth crisis raised fundamental questions about future handling of animal diseases. "The scale of the current outbreak raises fundamental questions about possible control strategies in future and we agree that we do need to look at alternatives.

"Contrary to popular opinion, the NFU has never rejected outright the use of vaccination as part of a control strategy."

Tim Yeo, the shadow Environment Secretary, added: "We can see from this report and the latest outbreaks of foot-and-mouth in Northumberland that unlike Tony Blair's promise before the election, the disease is not in the home straight.

"It is vital that the Government makes it clear just what their new strategy for eradicating this disease will be."