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Mr. Brown: The hon. Lady is right, and makes a perfectly fair comment. I want to open the pig scheme as quickly as I can, to cover exactly those circumstances that she has described. The preferred route for disposal of pigs is to get the chain working normally. Much of it is working normally but, as we found out from the classical swine fever outbreak in East Anglia, problems emerge very quickly when the chain is not working properly. Such problems require decisive action, and the hon. Lady is right to press me on the point. I will get on with the matter.
I wish to ask about travellers with regard to containment and contamination. Where a travelling group arrives at an infected area, is the advice to the police that they should be asked to stay there or should they be moved on, as many people want? My fear is that if travellers are moved on, they simply become another vector for transmission. I do not know whether MAFF has issued guidance and advice on that issue.
My hon. Friend invites me to give either one piece of unpopular advice or another piece of unpopular advice. Travellers, like everyone else, should stay away from farmed livestock. If they have been in contact with farmed livestock, they should take exactly the same precautionary measures that everyone else has to take before moving. My advice to everyone is to stay away from farmed livestock.
Mr. Brown: I will take a few more interventions but then I really would like to make some progress, because there are some things that I know right hon. and hon. Members want to hear--even if they pretend not to.
Mr. Livsey: I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way. As he will know, there are nearly 1 million sheep in Powys. In the 1967 outbreak, it was very common to put a calf in with the sheep because they show early warning signs of the disease. I gather from what was said in the Select Committee this morning that this is exceedingly difficult. Only 5 per cent. of sheep actually show signs of the disease. Will the Minister consider this practice and also the use of cull cows, which are of very low value?
Mr. Brown: I understand the sensible thinking that underpins the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. However, this is a voluntary scheme and it is difficult to ask people to deliver animals to a voluntary scheme and then argue about the money afterwards. If the hon. Gentleman reflects on his time in business, does he think that he would have done the deal first and haggled about the payment afterwards? Frankly, I think not.
Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): I had a meeting with five farmers in my constituency on Monday. In Wales, in the Vale of Clwyd, we have many small farms, which send only two or three animals to slaughter at a time. Those farmers asked whether it would be possible to send their two or three animals to a central location if their vehicles were disinfected when they left the farm and got to the central location so that the animals could be collected by a large wagon and taken off to slaughter.
Mr. Brown: That is a perfectly fair point. At the beginning of the outbreak we were considering whether collection centres might be a viable route. I am advised that at the moment they are not, because of the risk and the need for intensive management of some centres. As the situation progresses, I hope that it will be possible to put such arrangements in place. I hold out the prospect of such an option in the future, but I cannot announce it now.
I should like to make some progress, because I know that the House will be interested in what I have to say next. As the disease has incubated and revealed itself, our understanding of the outbreak has increased and we have been able to refine the disease control strategy. On 15 March I set out our safety-first strategy of intensified efforts in the areas of the country where the disease has spread and, provided that other areas remain disease-free, modification of restrictions in those unaffected areas.
In his statement to the House yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment reported on the work of the rural taskforce. I reinforce his message by urging the public to continue to stay away from farmed livestock and to take special precautions in infected areas. At the same time, however, I want to make it clear that a range of country activities can be safely undertaken, particularly in unaffected areas. That is the best way to help rural businesses, which depend on visitors and tourism.
In the areas in which we are intensifying our efforts, the greatest concentration of infection is in the adjoining counties of Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway. Those two counties account for more than 40 per cent. of all confirmed cases, and substantially more of those confirmed recently.
Mr. Hogg: I sense that the Minister will soon come to the extended cull. If so, will he help the House on one point? In dealing with the killing of healthy animals, what steps will he take to safeguard the blood lines of specialist flocks? Several specialist groups of cattle, pigs and sheep could effectively be eliminated if a whole flock were to be destroyed under the extended cull scheme. What does the Minister have in mind?
The infection has mainly been concentrated in the sheep flock, although there is now cattle-to-cattle spread in Cumbria. The potential for rapid spread in that area makes it necessary to destroy sheep and pigs within 3 km of the infected farms, as I announced last Thursday. The chief veterinary officer, Jim Scudamore, visited Cumbria on Monday to speak to local farmers and their representatives, as well as veterinarians. He explained the reasons for the slaughter of sheep and pigs within the 3 km zones.
In carrying out the programme of destroying animals within those zones in Cumbria and south-west Scotland, we shall look sympathetically at the scope for protecting rare breeds, wherever possible. We are discussing how best to achieve that with representatives of farmers of rare breeds.
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): The Minister's point is of great concern to my constituents and those of all right hon. and hon. Members who represent Cumbria. He said that he would seek to preserve specialist herds. If those herds are wiped out, there will be no
The Minister said that he would seek "wherever possible" to protect those herds from the effects of the wider cull. Earlier today, he also said that the Dutch were considering a ring vaccination scheme around the area in which foot and mouth has broken out in the Netherlands. Vaccination is a highly complicated and sensitive issue, but if that is the only mechanism by which we may keep some rare herds in existence, will the Minister consider it?
May I extend to the Minister a repeat of the invitation that many people in Cumbria have offered him? I know that he is busy, but if he could come to the county, an awful lot of people would like to see him.
Mr. Brown: What the hon. Gentleman says is true. My earlier outline plan would have taken me to Cumbria this afternoon. I said previously that I would tell all the county's Members of Parliament when I would visit Cumbria so that we could meet on a bipartisan basis with, at least, farmers' leaders and representatives of the veterinary profession to discuss what is being done, and why and how. I know that there is much interest in all those points. I should also want to look to the future and discuss a recovery plan and the future shape of the industry once we have defeated the disease.
I have never ruled out vaccination. I am not an enthusiast, and I should take a lot of persuading before agreeing to it. The professional advice that I have had goes against it, for all the reasons that we have previously debated here. I have not ruled out vaccination in the context of rare breeds, although I am not certain that it would achieve the result that the hon. Gentleman anticipates.
We are taking specific interest in rare breeds and shall do whatever is necessary to protect them. However, if animals get the disease, they must be destroyed. There is nothing that I, or any Minister in my position, can do about that.
Let me make some further progress. I want to say something about the situation in Devon, which is also very serious. As I explained to the House last Thursday, our policy in Devon is to carry out intensive patrols--veterinary inspections--every 48 hours on all farms within a 3 km radius of an infected farm. That work is intensive and must be undertaken by people with veterinary knowledge. Its purpose is to ensure that cases of foot and mouth disease are identified as soon as possible and dealt with, by quarantine and slaughter.
Like all our actions, that measure is under constant review, but it is designed to try to prevent mass culling in the peculiar circumstances of Devon farms--where the farm structure is relatively small and the farms are close together. Everyone in the House will understand what that means with regard to the risk of spreading infectivity. I appeal to everyone to co-operate with the authorities in Devon over that intensive and focused disease-control strategy, designed to defeat the disease before it spreads further and necessitates more widespread culling.
As we have already discussed, and as the hon. Member for South Suffolk emphasised, there are serious logistical issues in Cumbria and in Devon in relation to slaughtering and disposing of infected animals. There is much interest
Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition made a number of suggestions for action to help speed up our response to the disease, and they are reflected in today's Opposition motion. They are all helpful suggestions and I shall address each in turn.
The first is to allow vets to slaughter on suspicion of foot and mouth disease. Following the early cases of the disease, the Government's policy has been that vets can authorise slaughter on the basis of their clinical judgment. For some time, more than 90 per cent. of all cases have been slaughtered without the need for laboratory tests. The reason is obvious: we now know that we have foot and mouth disease in this country, so it is not necessary to confirm each case. In almost all cases, the judgment of the individual veterinarian is enough.
The second proposal--also perfectly sensible--is that the Government make an appeal to vets from abroad to come and help in the fight against the disease. Probably our largest bottleneck in the control of this extended outbreak is veterinary resource--we need vets. In the first week of the outbreak, we made such an appeal, and 70 foreign vets are already in the country, seven are arriving today and up to 30 will arrive next week.
The third proposal is that the Government bring final-year veterinary students into the front line against the disease. We have already done so. More than 100 have been appointed to work alongside the state veterinary service, and we hope that a further 70 will join soon.
It was also suggested that we employ retired vets. We are recalling retired vets to the colours--making use of their skills and services. We are increasing still further the number of vets involved in fighting the disease. More than 1,000 vets have already been appointed to the SVS; that compares with the 220 who would normally be employed as fieldworkers. In Cumbria, we have increased the number of Government vets from 14--the number on 28 February--to 64 on 7 March and, as of Monday this week, the number is 101. The extra numbers are being drafted into Cumbria because it is necessary to do so.