Judgement, spin and the lessons of the BSE crisis

It is a pity that Lord Phillips' report into BSE and its human equivalent seems to have been captured at its last stage by the spin merchants of this rotating government. It will not be published until Thursday, yet ministers took delivery of it two weeks ago. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some of the findings should be leaked to the press over the weekend, with the news that the Government will pay compensation to victims of variant CJD.

It is a pity that Lord Phillips' report into BSE and its human equivalent seems to have been captured at its last stage by the spin merchants of this rotating government. It will not be published until Thursday, yet ministers took delivery of it two weeks ago. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some of the findings should be leaked to the press over the weekend, with the news that the Government will pay compensation to victims of variant CJD.

Until this point, the conduct of Lord Phillips' inquiry had been a model of openness, with public hearings and public evidence. The sudden instinct for secrecy and media management might seem unnecessary, given that the report focuses on the sins of the previous government.

Before the report is published, however, it ought to be possible to set out lessons for this Government for future policy.

This means using the report to understand why mistakes were made and how they might be avoided in future rather than simply identifying scapegoats. It seems that many ministers and civil servants were too slow to respond to the evidence of unsafe feeding practices and that BSE could cross species barriers. Although it should be recognised that there was a degree of honour in resisting speculative statements which might have prompted mass hysteria, the question is why ministers and officials responded so slowly.

One reason is a lack of imagination: the idea that BSE might be transmissible to humans was too awful to contemplate. The ability to think the unthinkable and plan for unpredictable contingencies used to be one of the most prized skills of the civil service, but it has been squeezed by other priorities. It should be revived. Other reasons are more worrying: the capture of the Ministry of Agriculture by the interests of farmers and the food industry; and the more subtle tendency to give the benefit of doubt to jobs in farming rather than to consumer safety.

It must seem to politicians that the "safe" thing to do is to adhere to the letter of advice from scientists. But the BSE crisis was an object lesson in the need to apply judgement in the assessment of risk.

The persistence of BSE in British beef cattle, and the continuing scientific uncertainty about the precise nature of the links between it and variant CJD, mean that today's ministers must exercise political judgement, just as they would do with economic or any other advice. The BSE crisis is not over yet.

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