There should be an inquiry into this costly disaster

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An urban nation with a short attention span has already largely forgotten the foot-and-mouth crisis, as the last remaining infected areas were downgraded to merely "high risk" status yesterday.

An urban nation with a short attention span has already largely forgotten the foot-and-mouth crisis, as the last remaining infected areas were downgraded to merely "high risk" status yesterday.

Yet it was, and it remains, a big deal. Big enough to force the postponement of a general election. Big enough to close down large parts of the countryside. Big enough to have nearly 4 million animals – almost all healthy – killed in order to eradicate the disease.

Even townies should care about the huge financial costs of the outbreak, borne in the first instance by those in the tourism and farming industries, but ultimately falling on the nation as a whole. The Government estimates that the cost to the English tourist industry alone was £3.3bn this year. In the middle of his pre-Budget report on Tuesday, the Chancellor mumbled quickly about the £2.7bn cost of "tackling foot-and-mouth disease and supporting the recovery of rural areas", nearly three times as much as the extra billion promised for the NHS next year and more than 10 times the £250m cost in extra defence, policing and aid so far of the campaign against terrorism.

It is, therefore, devoutly to be wished that there are no further outbreaks, although it is too early to claim a secure victory over the disease. It is not too early, however, to set up an inquiry into the crisis and the Government's handling of it. It was worrying that one of the lessons of the inquiry into the last outbreak in 1967-68 seemed to have been overlooked, in that burial was preferred to burning for disposal of the carcasses. But there are other questions too, such as whether vaccination is preferable to slaughter as a means of disease control in the first place, especially for a virus that, while highly infectious, is harmless to humans and not particularly damaging to animals.

So far Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has set herself against an independent public inquiry with all the sulky conviction of a minister who knows that her position is unjustifiable yet who sees no political advantage in doing the right thing. Her feeble defence is that the last inquiry was "serviced" by the Ministry of Agriculture.

This is, sadly, now part of a pattern with this Government. Its position on freedom of information has been exposed as dishonest. A government that will not submit to open scrutiny is not a government that deserves to be trusted.

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