Whitehall 'failed to learn from BSE crisis'

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The Independent Online

The Government's handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis has shown it has failed to learn vital lessons from the £26m BSE inquiry, a senior scientist who was on the panel said yesterday. "There's a danger that the inquiry report will become a hugely expensive doorstop," Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith told the British Association conference in Glasgow.

He cited, particularly, the failure to set up an open public inquiry of foot-and-mouth disease. The Government has said it will have three separate investigations, none of them public. The professor also said that how the Government had chosen the experts recruited to help it deal with the disease was unclear. The process, he said, harked back to the early days of BSE, when the Southwood Committee, which said it thought the possibility of BSE infecting humans through food very unlikely, was "purely ad hoc: the then Minister of Health rang up a friend and put together some names, rather than finding the best people in the field."

With foot-and-mouth, he said much the same seemed to have happened. "Several epidemiologists got together with [Sir John] Krebs [head of the Food Standards Agency] and gathered a few names. I don't see there was any effort to identify the best people to tackle the problem and give the best advice. Some of the lessons [from the BSE inquiry] appear not to have been learnt. You would have hoped that at least some of the Government's officials would have read the report, but all the evidence is that nobody is paying much attention to it."

Professor Ferguson-Smith provided the scientific guidance on the three-person panel led by Lord Justice Phillips, which examined the role of the civil service and government in dealing with the emergence of BSE. The inquiry, which was held in public, cost £26m and lasted three years.

The professor warned that the "same old gang" seems to be in charge at the new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the successor set up in June to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff). "They do have a different mission and I hope that they have learnt some of the lessons, but that remains to be seen."

He said that such lack of openness and apparent inertia meant that "the risk is that the public don't believe what the Government is doing". He also warned that anybody recruited to the foot-and-mouth inquiries should expect them to last much longer than forecast. "I joined the BSE inquiry panel and was told it would take a few hours a day for six months. It took more than two and a half years of 12-hour days. The foot-and-mouth inquiries won't be finished in six months either."