Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. So your contingency plan has not in the last 12 months looked at the scenario that said "if we had an outbreak, if the defences were down and foot and mouth got into the United Kingdom, these are some possible ways in which it could occur and therefore the resource implications are X"? Are you telling me that such an exercise has not been carried out?
  (Mr Brown) I am not telling you that. I do not know the answer. Jim, do you know the answer to the question? It is very rare for Ministers to be involved in role-playing. In fairness, I do not have a lot of time for role-playing. My time is at a premium.

  61. You might not but the quality of the advice you get from your officials depends on them having worked out possible contingencies. We have just seen what can happen with something like BSE over a number of years where similar problems of disease, the destruction of animals, the use of vets has been a key part in dealing with that. I am asking a question about how well prepared you were for the situation that we are now going through. Perhaps the Chief Vet can tell us.
  (Mr Brown) I do think that everything we have done stands very good comparison with what was done in the case of the BSE outbreak.

  62. My question was how well-prepared were you for this in the light of some of the problems that have occurred?
  (Mr Brown) How well-prepared was the last Government for BSE?

  63. Perhaps the Chief Vet will be able to enlighten us as to what preparatory exercises have taken place.
  (Mr Scudamore) There are two types of contingency planning. First of all, there is local contingency planning where the local offices will write up and develop scenarios where they would look at the possibility of one or two or ten cases and they would work up what they would do about them and run exercises some of which would be practical exercises, other ones of which would be desk-top exercises and it varied in how often it was set up and where it took place, and those exercises would be run to deal with the swine fever scenario or foot and mouth scenario. Those are local office scenarios. In terms of the national plan we are required by Europe to submit a national contingency plan, which we do regularly. That more describes the operational aspects of how we would deal with outbreaks and what do we do. We have not used a model to do the scenario of planning you are talking about. The contingency planning is local training and planning on how people would deal with outbreaks and what they would do, and nationally it is to produce a contingency plan which complies with an EU requirement. We have been doing that for the last 20 years, looking at the way we would deal with outbreaks, but the scenario planning has not been done which would have picked up this situation. One of the reasons being that we have had a very heavy workload over the last ten years and risk assessments at the time meant that we spent the time on BSE and other issues. We do have contingency plans, national and local, we do have training, but we have not had any scenario running with a model to look at a circumstance like this.

  64. One of the earlier points of criticism was the time taken for the analysis done at Pirbright. For example, why were other central veterinary laboratory facilities not used? I gather there is a private laboratory called the Crompton Laboratory which could also have been used. Why were they not all brought into play at the beginning to speed up the process which you identified between diagnosis, confirmation and slaughter?
  (Mr Brown) There was not a delay at the early part of the outbreak. Indeed, people worked very hard overnight doing the tests on the main suspect cases to make sure that the confirmation was there the following morning. As the disease has developed we know now that we have foot and mouth disease in the country and in quantities of intense infectivity in parts of it so we are dealing with it on the basis of clinical diagnosis rather than tests overnight.

  65. Can I have an answer to the specific point?
  (Mr Brown) I will let Jim answer but this is not a resource shortage, or it has not been.
  (Mr Scudamore) The specific point is that we are dealing with a highly virulent, highly infectious virus that can only be dealt with under high containment and high security. There is only one laboratory in this country that is permitted to deal with this virus and that is the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright. The laboratory has to have special filters and special designs and it is so high security that it is the only place that we can submit material that has virus in it. There have been suggestions that we could use the Veterinary Laboratory Agency to do some of the serology but I have rejected those on the grounds that I do not want material taken from the Institute to the VLA where we have some very valuable cattle under experimental conditions for BSE and other long-term trials, and the last thing we want to do is contaminate that laboratory. We are left with only one laboratory in this country that will do this work. In terms of delays, the laboratory is meeting the challenges extremely well and I should pay tribute to the work they have done for us. The number of samples they get and the work they do is tremendous. There is not a delay at the moment. We are confirming large numbers on clinical grounds. Some we are taking samples from just to make sure that the clinical decisions are right. The reasons for some of the delays at the very beginning were that we wanted a full examination of material to be absolutely sure we were dealing with foot and mouth because, if you remember, when we started we only had it in pigs, then we found it in sheep, now we have had it in cattle. In sheep we wanted to be sure that the diagnosis was right. In the very first few weeks we did have some problems with communications between Pirbright and the operations centre and we have resolved those by putting one of our staff down to Pirbright to improve the operational and communication links. That has removed the delays of giving negative results. Most of the results are given on clinical examination now.

  66. Are you satisfied with the support you have had from the private veterinary service and indeed the relationship that MAFF has with them? There has been a certain friction, for example, in Lancashire and Cheshire before this outbreak occurred over the way you have tried to resolve the reduction in costs in testing for tuberculosis, for example, in cattle and perhaps that has left a bit of a nasty taste in the mouth of private vets. Are you happy that your relationships have not in any way soured or diminished their willingness to fully support your endeavours in the context of foot and mouth?
  (Mr Scudamore) Again I should pay tribute to the veterinary profession for the amount of help they have given us. The situation in Lancashire and Cheshire was to deal with tuberculin testing and that has been resolved. We currently have 717 temporary veterinary inspectors working for us. Many of those will have been in private practice and they are now working for us on the outbreak. In addition to the ones who work directly for us there is quite a commitment from the local vets to deal with the licensing arrangements for welfare movements and for inspecting animals before they move. I think relations with the veterinary profession are very good at the moment. We are in close touch with the British Veterinary Association and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and in fact yesterday the BVA and RCVS both put out an appeal for more vets to come and work for us, particularly in Cumbria and Devon.

  67. My last question was on communication to farmers. Minister, quite rightly, you put a lot of emphasis on the range of ways you are communicating with farmers. You sent a helpful letter out to members summarising some of this. In their letter to us the Tenant Farmers' Association commented that although good information was put on MAFF's Internet web site they were concerned that some farmers did not have access to that technology. Perhaps you could give us a commentary on that particular point and generally give us some feedback as to how your exercise in communicating with farmers has worked and if there are still any areas in which you are trying to make improvements.
  (Mr Brown) In my management of communications in what is now a serious animal disease outbreak I am guided by the comments in the Phillips Report which looked at the way in which the BSE outbreak was handled. Phillips is very clear on this question. He says that the Government has a duty to communicate its strategy clearly, to listen to not only those who agree with it but those who do not and to explain. Throughout this (which, as you will readily appreciate, is very time-consuming) I have set out to explain to Parliament of course because that is an obligation on me as a Minister, to the public which has enormous interest in this. We have daily media briefings for journalists to bring them up to date day-by-day, but also with the farmers themselves. I cannot meet every farmer individually although, as I said before, it sometimes feels like I have. The leaders I can meet and I do regularly. The last meeting between myself and Ben Gill was yesterday and the next one is today. We are in regular contact. The officials of the NFU are in regular contact with my officials. I am also in contact with the Ministers in the devolved administrations and there is very good liaison between my Ministry and the agriculture specialists in the devolved administrations. I have written to every Member of Parliament saying where front-line information can be found. I have written to every farmer, absolutely every farmer, setting out where front-line information can be found. We have established a help-line. We do put information on the Internet. The bulletin that goes daily to Members of Parliament also goes to regional officials of the NFU. They get exactly the same front-line daily information that the Parliamentarians get and can use that for informing their own members. I know this is not perfect, particularly in a situation that is changing very rapidly, but I am doing everything I can to make sure the new information that comes to me is interpreted and explained on a daily basis. There are weekly opportunities in front of the House for me to set out the present position and how the Department is responding to the challenges that are, after all, changing as the situation itself changes rapidly, so I am trying to do this with openness and candour. At the same time I am trying to give careful consideration to dissenters, those who have a different view in policy terms as to how we should be dealing with the outbreak. These effectively fall into two groups. There are those who say we should be doing what we are doing but better and sooner. I have some sympathy with that. We are trying to get more vets and more contractors and we are trying to organise the disposal of material better and more effectively, particularly in the areas of intense infectivity, Cumbria, the South of Scotland and Devon, and at the same time I am giving careful thought to those who say there are alternative strategies that can be pursued. I must emphasise to the Committee that the whole weight of veterinary opinion and the whole of the industry and indeed (it is not a party political point) across party, everyone is in favour of the strategy that we are pursuing and wants it to be pursued with vigour.

  68. Can I just say I am delighted to hear all that, but I would very much appreciate it if you could ensure that I get a copy of your daily bulletin because so far it has not reached me.
  (Mr Brown) I am sorry for that. I will make sure it does.


  69. Nor me.
  (Mr Brown) It may be that somebody is handling your post and sparing you.

Mr Drew

  70. Can I take you back very quickly to the situation of private vets. There has been some argument that private vets are not being compensated sufficiently well, particularly it they are dealing with foot and mouth cases and become dirty and cannot work on other holdings for several days.
  (Mr Brown) That is one issue. The other issue is there are about 22,000 private vets in the country but they have their own practices and are making a living and to divert from their practice themselves or one member of what might be a group practice clearly is an economic cost to the practice. You are right to say that is an important point. I am going to ask Jim to say something about that because we are aware of the problems.
  (Mr Scudamore) We have revised the fees we pay to TVIs upwards since we began the outbreak and we keep that under constant review. We want to attract vets to work for us. The problem is that they do run practices and again a difference to 1967-68 is that a lot of the practices then were agricultural only so they could release vets. Now most of the practices have quite a high proportion of small animals and one of the difficulties we are facing is that whilst the vets are very willing to help in their own locality their locality could be the wrong one. There is a slight discrepancy between where we need vets and where we have got them. We are getting very good co-operation. The difficulty is the type of practice. And what we are investigating now is whether we can use vets who have got small animal practices more efficiently to do work for us in those areas.


  71. Is it true that in Cumbria vets were getting £160 a day and valuers £500 a day?
  (Mr Scudamore) Vets were getting £160 a day. I cannot quote what the valuers were getting.

  72. Would they be justified in feeling some resentment because they had a dirtier job?
  (Mr Scudamore) We have altered that rate to £250 a day, which has not been announced yet but will be announced tomorrow.

  73. It has been now!
  (Mr Scudamore) Perhaps I can explain why we have done that. First of all, I must say that the veterinary profession is committed to doing this work and the vets from practice or the other vets working for us are doing 12 hours days and we did consider that £160 was quite inadequate. It is being raised to £250 a day which is a special rate for dealing with foot and mouth disease and for dealing with this problem. At the same time we have to consider our own staff who are also working extremely long hours and who are also veterinary staff, so we are looking to see how they are recompensed for the work they put it. We are having to look at it as an overall picture. The intention is to pay the TVIs for the work they do and at the same time attract more of them to come and work for us and at the same time give them a fair rate for the work they are doing for us.

Mr Todd

  74. I think we have identified the major barrier is getting the slaughter done fast enough after diagnosis. The abattoir sector is working comfortably below capacity in most areas and there is clearly not a shortage of slaughtermen, it is an issue of how you get them to the correct places. There is also no shortage of rural accommodation for them should they need to be brought from other parts of the country. What is the difficulty there?
  (Mr Brown) We have brought in extra help to manage the work, in other words to take that off the veterinary authorities because it is a job that can be done by those who are not vets. We are putting substantially higher resources into that. We are exploring making substantial further use of rendering as a disposal route and I would expect substantially enhanced capacity to continue to come on stream over the next few days. As I said to the Committee earlier, I had a meeting with the Chief Executive of the Intervention Board to discuss precisely that.

  75. It is not quite the same thing because the task is normally to kill the animals first before movement, I would have thought.
  (Mr Brown) There are two different categories of animals. There are those that have the disease which have to be killed on site. There are those that are suspects but do not have the disease and it may be possible to move them live to designated abattoirs on a single journey and then they are slaughtered in the abattoir.

  76. So are we attempting to engage the abattoir sector?
  (Mr Brown) We would need a specialist contract with a specialist abattoir for this purpose and this purpose alone. The meat would not—let me make this absolutely clear—the meat would not go into the food chain.

Dr Turner

  77. You have made it very clear that you want to be completely open on information. Given that the media are telling us that the Opposition may be breaking ranks in this non-partisan approach, could you tell us what efforts have been made to make sure there have been information flows and that the Opposition are kept well informed? Can you tell us any representations they have made as you have gone along as to what you should be doing differently?
  (Mr Brown) The same information has gone to all Members of Parliament equally and that is on a daily basis. The five proposals that were put forward yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition—there were seven but five are to do with disease control—are all perfectly helpful and sensible suggestions but are things that we were doing anyway. Let me give an example: the idea that we should take up final year students. We have over 100 final year students, veterinary students, working for us anyway and are recruiting a further 80. It is a good idea but we are doing that. In summary, I hope that we can maintain a bipartisan spirit in dealing with what is a disease outbreak and it should not be a party political issue.

  Chairman: We will find out about that this afternoon.

  Mr Borrow: I just want to explore a few things around some of the alternate approaches that have been suggested in the press over the last few days. I recognise that there is a consensus around the strategy but there are a number of alternative strategies that are now being raised by various individuals. On the question of vaccination, if we were to go down the vaccination route, what would the effect of that be on UK's disease-free status? Do we know which countries would actually block exports of livestock as a result of that.


  78. And of carcasses I assume.
  (Mr Brown) If we do not get our disease-free status back we would struggle to find an export market and could only establish one under strictly controlled circumstances, in other words the meat would have to be de-boned and so on. It is quite a prohibition. There would be no export at all of breeding animals so the whole of the breeding sow industry, the quite strong one that we have, would be gone. Perhaps it would be helpful if I ask the Chief Vet to set out the down side of vaccination. It is not as straight forward as is commonly assumed. Let me say no veterinary authority in the European Union is recommending to its ministers vaccination as anything other than a containment strategy and even then as last resort. As far as I understand it, every first world country fights to get a disease-free status and if they are using vaccination it is as a route to establishing a disease-free status and the vaccinated animals, once they have got the disease defeated, are culled out. The idea that we would have a continuous vaccination strategy would make us internationally unique. It is very undesirable for the livestock sector for reasons that the Chief Vet will set out.
  (Mr Scudamore) There is a whole range of different strategies for vaccination. There can be emergency vaccination and there can be routine vaccination. With emergency vaccination you would still continue the stamping out policy. So you would vaccinate as an emergency but cases would still be dealt with by condemnation, slaughter and disposal. With routine vaccination you would just remove to vaccinating animals and letting the disease run its course. There are different implications for both of those. The situation with no vaccination is that three months after the last case, provided we have carried out serological surveillance, we would be classified as free and we would expect to be able to sell products on the world market, or at least within the EU. If we use emergency vaccination still with stamping out, then three months after the last vaccinated animal was slaughtered and we carried out serological surveillance would we get our free status back. That implies that if you use emergency vaccination in areas or in parts then you would have to slaughter all of the vaccinated animals out to get the status back, or you would have to regionalise the country so you would have to have vaccinated parts of the country and unvaccinated parts of the country and you would have to have movement controls between the two different parts of the country, which would be quite difficult to manage. If you go to routine vaccination and you do not stamp out then you accept that you have endemic disease and the implications of that are that you are not free of disease and you would only be allowed to export beef provided it was de-boned and it was matured and you would not be allowed to export pig meat or sheep meat. There are quite a lot of other rules on genetic material, milk and other products. There are different types of vaccination and they have different impacts on the country's status. If we went to routine vaccination and we did not slaughter animals and we had no disease, we would have to go two years from the time we stopped vaccination before we could be considered free again with no outbreaks and we would also have to do more surveillance before we could get a free from no vaccination status. So the lengths of time are quite long but there are different combinations of vaccinations and different impacts of what they mean and it needs to be put in a tabular form really.

Mr Borrow

  79. Some suggestions have been made that we can use emergency vaccination as a "firebreak" and your comment would be if that was done that might slow down the spread of the disease but those animals would have to be slaughtered anyway as part of the eradication of the disease?
  (Mr Scudamore) That is correct. There are two types of emergency vaccination. You can either do a firebreak to stop disease spreading out of an area or you can do it within an area to reduce the level of infection. In both cases if you want to go back to being a free country I think those vaccinated animals would have to be slaughtered and removed otherwise you would have to have a country of two parts, the vaccinated part where there are vaccinated animals, which would have to come on stream two or three years later, and the rest of the country.
  (Mr Brown) Can I just make this clear to the Committee. The Government's strategy is to protect us from classical swine fever, foot and mouth disease, to keep our disease-free status and to eliminate BSE as well. That is our objective, to get back to a completely disease-free status, to look very hard at what made us vulnerable and to make sure that any corrections that are needed there are made.

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