Now foot-and-mouth is almost over, it is too easy to blame the Government

Click to follow
The Independent Online
At last it seems safe to guess that the foot-and-mouth outbreak really is petering out.

At last it seems safe to guess that the foot-and-mouth outbreak really is petering out. It is worth at least beginning, therefore, to try to learn the lessons of this national crisis, even before the dust ­ or in this case, smoke ­ has settled.

There are two questions that demand to be answered. The first is, is there something fundamentally wrong with the way the farming industry operates in this country? The other is, how well has the Government handled this unexpected test?

The answer to the first question is yes, but that has nothing to do with foot-and-mouth. The disease is rife in many poor countries that cannot afford high-tech farming methods, and that move livestock around as much as we do. Our farming industry ought to be less intensive, less cruel to animals and less subsidised, but those issues are unrelated to the present crisis ­ except in that farmers are treated more generously by the public purse than other victims of economic adversity. Now may not be the most tactful time to say this, but farming ­ Britain's largest nationalised industry ­ ought to be returned to the private sector forthwith.

The answer to the second question is that hindsight is a brilliant tactician. It is easy to say now that Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, should have adopted the "firebreak" policy earlier ­ culling all animals on infected farms within 24 hours and on adjacent farms within 48 hours. It is that policy that seems to have done the trick.

That is, perhaps, the main criticism of substance that can be sustained at this stage. It is clear that the Ministry of Agriculture is an underpowered department, and that its information-gathering was poor. One of the reasons why the firebreak policy was delayed was that the number of animal movements just before foot-and-mouth disease was diagnosed was seriously underestimated.

Beyond that, the Government's policies were under constant attack, one day for being too relaxed, the next for being too stringent and the day after that for being both at once. Mr Brown was widely thought to have over-reacted with the nationwide ban on all livestock movements three days after the first confirmed outbreak in February. He was then assailed by the Irish for not cancelling enough horse races, while farmers and sentimentalists complained about the culling of healthy animals (most of which, it should be recalled, were raised for slaughter).

As each controversy rose and fell, a dispassionate observer could only conclude that the Government did its honest best and probably chose the right course most of the time. Burying the carcasses is probably better than burning them, but there was not time to bury them all. Vaccination would probably have caused more problems than it solved.

More difficult judgements were involved in dealing with the impact of the crisis on tourism. Again, the Government did what it could. Tony Blair deployed his energy and skill as the nation's front man in order to persuade foreigners to come here (the same skill that has now been deployed in the laughable cause of saving a calf called Phoenix). But that sales pitch did not stand a chance against the reflex assumption of middle America that Britain was closed on account of dangerously infectious mad cow disease. Postponing the elections did not help, but the Prime Minister was already trying to sell an impossibly complex message.

It was the impact on tourism that was the real tragedy, in that many rural shops, pubs, restaurants and hotels will go out of business with scant prospect of compensation from the taxpayer. The people who work in these tourism-related jobs are at least as deserving of our sympathy as those who work in farming or for mobile phone companies.

Comments