Leading Article: The countryside holds its breath

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The Independent Online

In 2001, it was 34 years since the last great occurrence of foot and mouth disease in Britain in 1967-68. In 2007, we are only six years from the last outbreak. And the difference between the Government's approach then and now could hardly be more marked.

Back then, crucial lessons in handling the disease could have been learned, but were not, from the Northumberland Report of 1968 which had been left to gather dust. As a result, seven million animals were slaughtered and thousands of farmers lost all or part of their stock. The cost came to some £8bn. The human and social cost, as our moving article by Fordyce Maxwell reminds us, was no less great. Dr Iain Anderson, the author of the official inquest into the way the 2001 outbreak was handled, wrote that "we seem destined to repeat the lessons of history". Fortunately, that turns out not to be true.

The Government has, so far, avoided making the mistakes of the past. It reacted with commendable swiftness to the outbreak, evidence for which was first reported on Thursday on a farm near Guildford; on Friday tests were found to be positive for the disease. Immediately afterwards, all livestock on the farm were culled, the area was placed under a restriction order and the countryside nearby was put under surveillance. The Government declared a nationwide ban on the movement of cattle, pigs and sheep.

This weekend, livestock were banned from countryside fairs and shows; some shows were cancelled. The emergency meeting of Cobra, the ministerial group that responds to national crises, took place yesterday morning, chaired by the Prime Minister. This time it cannot be said that the resources of government were not mobilised early on.

For farmers, the outbreak could hardly have happened at a worse time. Last month, flooding took its toll on cattle farmers by driving up the price of grain feed. The UK cattle industry was only beginning to recover from the damage to exports from the ban that followed the BSE outbreak; now the EU has placed a ban on British meat exports.

In merely political terms, the outbreak of foot and mouth has been another excellent opportunity for Gordon Brown to demonstrate the difference in approach between his government and that of Tony Blair. The week began with Mr Brown placing the relationship between Britain and the US on a discernibly different, though still friendly, footing. It ends with Mr Brown cutting short his vacation in – be it noted – rural Dorset to deal directly with the crisis. David Cameron, similarly – and perhaps conscious of the criticism he received when he left the rising waters of Witney for Rwanda – has returned home to see the problems for himself.

All this matters. The Government's mismanagement of the last outbreak of foot and mouth was bad enough; for farmers it was further confirmation that ministers simply did not care about the countryside. This time, Gordon Brown seems anxious to demonstrate that he is sensitive to the needs of country people, including those in England. This effort at inclusivity is to the good. If last month's floods showed up the limitations of the policies of the Government, particularly the Environment Agency, the foot and mouth outbreak is an opportunity for ministers to demonstrate practical good sense.

But what can the Government do beyond imposing restrictions on livestock movements? It can, obviously, ensure that this time farmers have no incentive to conceal any incidence of the disease in their herds. It can continue to ensure that any infected animals are quickly slaughtered. It has already said that it will take a pragmatic approach to the question of whether to vaccinate herds, based on scientific advice. Producing a vaccine, however, can take place only after this particular strain has been identified. Ministers, moreover, will have to adapt their plans as the scale of the outbreak emerges.

And what can we, the public, do? We ought to continue to buy British meat because it is, overwhelmingly, still safe to do so. We should stick to our plans to holiday in the British countryside, if we have any. The rural economy suffered dreadfully during the last outbreak from the restrictions on movement within the countryside. This time, at least so far, there are no such restrictions and we should, accordingly, make every effort to support the rural tourist industry – there are already compelling environmental reasons why we should do so.

But it would be a rash betting man who put money on this outbreak being the only one. Foot and mouth is a highly contagious disease with an incubation period of just over a week, so it is probable that the disease will show itself elsewhere. If – when – it does, the Government must respond with the same swiftness and decisiveness that it has shown so far.