Leading Article: A crisis averted but not yet solved

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The Independent Online

It could have been the stuff of horror films. But it wasn't. As soon as the foot-and-mouth outbreak was reported, diagnosis was speedy and control asserted. The Prime Minister suspended his Dorset holiday to get on top of the crisis. The leader of the Opposition was on hand and in supportive role. Cobra swung into action, ordering blanket suspensions of livestock movements, imposing exclusion zones and dispensing information.

It has been a crisis well handled, so far. Whether it's over is less certain. The Government has learnt from the bungled handling of the 2001 outbreak. Then, delay, muddle and lack of information devastated British farming and damaged the Government's reputation for competence. It also inflicted a subtler damage to the national psyche. With footpaths closed to walkers and television screens given over to images of distraught farmers and burning pyres of livestock, a residual image of England as a green and pleasant land took a savage knock. Tourists fled what many saw as a contaminated landscape, while overnight our food exports became an object of fear and derision for foreign consumers.

Thankfully, we are not back in those grim days and the authorities' efficient management of the outbreak, and of the flow of information, appears to have staved off any return to the panic of 2001, or to the hand-wringing over agriculture that followed, when the very point of keeping farming alive in Britain was questioned. But we are not in the clear. Farming has only just begun to recover from the blow dealt to it six years ago and British food is still regarded with suspicion abroad. British beef is still banned in the US and Japan on account of BSE.

As it is, no preventive measures on our part will stop the EU from imposing a fresh ban on British meat exports today in Brussels. Other countries, including Canada, are following suit. No matter how speedily the source of the latest contamination is located in the Government's animal health centre at Pirbright, or at the private Merial research centre nearby, there is a rolling momentum to these bans that is hard to slow, let alone reverse. Britain's farmers again face tough times when it comes to exports.

There is also the question of biosecurity. The idea that a highly contagious disease can escape from a laboratory, possibly on an air current, is alarming. As it happens, foot-and-mouth cannot be transmitted to humans. But the same cannot be said for all the diseases that research laboratories are working on in their search for vaccines and cures. This is not an invitation to panic but it is surely a legitimate cause for public concern.

The investigations that Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Rural Affairs, has ordered into conditions at Pirbright and Merial will, we hope, establish whether the virus escaped from one or the other laboratory and if so, how. Possibly they will conclude that it was a freakish accident. But if they uncover lapses, the Government must act quickly to ensure that levels of biosecurity in these establishments are upgraded, and that uniform high standards are seen to prevail throughout the public and private sector. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to note that terrorists of various sorts would be quick to try to take advantage of any faults or lapses in standards in this field.

Updating these facilities may take extra investment from the Government as well as from the commercial sector. So be it. Digging into the public purse to improve security at scientific research centres would be money well spent. This cause would also enjoy cross-party support. It is good that the Government is better at handling these crises than it was. It will be better when we can prevent them from occurring in the first place.