There is one thing that has become abundantly and depressingly clear about foot-and-mouth disease: it is a most persistent sort of pestilence.
There is one thing that has become abundantly and depressingly clear about foot-and-mouth disease: it is a most persistent sort of pestilence. The latest "mini-epidemic" in Northumberland merely confirms what we have known since March – that even when it appears to be under control, foot-and-mouth has a nasty habit of cheating eradication. And so it has proved once again.
However, there is more to the present cluster of cases than that. The region had been declared free of the disease for three months, and most farmers there must have felt that the worst was over. That the new outbreaks have been diagnosed in the vicinity of previous ones suggests that the measures taken to deal with those earlier diseased livestock may not have been sufficient. So, far from the Government being too zealous in pursuing their slaughter-and-contain policy, the disturbing possibility now emerges that the Maff vets may not have been thorough enough in dealing with livestock on contiguous farms. If such a failure has happened on a national scale then the consequences will be grim indeed.
We do not yet know, of course, if that is the case, and that is all the more reason for some urgent further research into the causes of the resurgence of the disease in Northumberland. It will also, in due course, be an important matter for the various inquiries set up by Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
In the meantime, the issue of vaccination will be raised again. This has been resisted by the Government and the farmers alike, and rightly so, because it would end the meat export trade and devastate sales at home. Irrational as it may be, people are reluctant to eat meat from vaccinated animals. The slaughter policy did have the merit of retaining some confidence in the meat trade and a reasonably rapid recovery in exports.
If, however, it becomes clear over the next few months that foot-and-mouth is ineradicable, short of ordering the death of every hoofed creature in the kingdom, we may have to reconsider the option of vaccination as the least bad option. And we should do this not least because of the effect of foot-and-mouth on the tourist industry, large parts of which will not survive another year of this.
We have not arrived there yet, but soon ministers may have to consider vaccination: an honourable U-turn in the face of a disease that seems virtually unbeatable.Reuse content