Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 240-259)



  240. If, as many people now think, the disease is endemic of sheep, how do you stop the disease getting outside this controlled area, particularly with reports that deer have been found?
  (Mr Brown) The question of wildlife is a different question. The sheep are hefted, they are territorial, in other words they are not going anywhere. What seems to me to be a workable proposal is to leave them in the territory to which they are wedded in general, I accept that some sheep stray, but mostly they do not and as they are hauled in in the autumn, which would be the conventional agricultural practice, we can test them in advance of that very thoroughly once they are all brought together. All the while that they are living extensively rather than intensively, the risk of disease spread is reduced. It is not a perfect strategy, but it is probably better than culling them all out under this contiguous premises approach, which would be the alternative, and is actually more applicable for conventional side-by-side farm holdings rather than the very special circumstances of extensively farmed blocks.

  241. You are effectively saying that sheep self-inoculate by getting the disease and it coming through them. How do you stop that getting into the wild animal population, such as deer, and it then coming down further into the country and cattle population which have not been vaccinated?
  (Mr Brown) I have not had any advice that the disease is in deer yet but I am aware that the story is going around. It is a bit like the story about that escaped virus from Porton Down and the deliberate infection of the animals and all these other stories that turn out not to be true. Now, how to deal with wildlife. The advice I have is that one should not cull out wildlife because it actually risks spreading the disease.

  242. Right. What are your explanations going to be to dairy farmers, for instance, further south, my area Shropshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire, who are going to see their brother dairy farmers being vaccinated after this very long delay. How are you going to protect yourself from legal claims against them, possibly under Human Rights legislation, that they do not have the right to go for vaccination when those in Cumbria have?
  (Mr Brown) The purpose of having a vaccination strategy for North Cumbria and possibly Devon was very area specific. It is to do with the density of the infection and the possibility of using the vaccination strategy not to put the disease on hold so that it be culled out. Although that is a perfectly arguably strategy it is not one the Government has been exploring. The strategy the Government has been exploring is that in the very special circumstances that pertain in these areas of high infectivity we give the animals this added protection so that they may endure the disease outbreak rather than risk getting the disease. That is the case for it. You are saying what is the case for differentiating between—

  243. No. I have seen your response to the NFU question. You are saying if you do not vaccinate in North Cumbria you are going to lose between 70 per cent and 99 per cent of the livestock.
  (Mr Brown) That is the epidemiological advice to us.

  244. Yes.
  (Mr Brown) This is based on mathematical modelling, whether it turns out to be true or not depends on what intervention the Government makes. The key intervention—and Professor King is very, very clear on this and I believe him to be right—is that we need to get to the infected premises within that 24 hour target and cull out the animals which show signs of infectivity at once, take out their cohorts next and then take out the contiguous premises. But, of course, because the number of daily cases being reported is steadily coming down, as has been forecast by Professor King and the teams that are working with him, it is clearly right that veterinary officials keep the way in which this policy is implemented under review, and of course they are doing that. As circumstances change we have to fine-tune the policy. Can I just ask Jim Scudamore if he can say something to you specifically about the wild deer. Now, as I understand the situation we have not found the disease in wild deer and in any event if we did the advice would not necessarily be to try to cull it out using marksmen which would be the necessary approach.

  245. The reports I have heard have been of deer being found dead with very obvious foot and mouth symptoms: blisters on the tongue and lesions on their feet. The ELISA Test does not work.
  (Mr Brown) If this were true it would be reported in to the veterinary authorities. I will ask Jim to tell you what has been reported in to us and what tests are available, clinical or otherwise, to ascertain whether it is foot and mouth disease or not. Jim?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes. Like you we have had reports from Devon and from Cumbria in particular about deer with what look like vesicles on the mouth. We have taken samples of quite a lot of those now and they have always come back negative for the virus and antibodies. There are two questions really. One is have they got foot and mouth disease, which we are investigating, the second is have they got a different condition altogether which has nothing to do with it. At the moment we are still investigating these but all the results I have seen to date have been negative for the virus and antibodies. Obviously there is a lot more work to do with them. If they were infected with foot and mouth then you would have to look at the virus or you would expect to find antibodies. So it is a question mark at the moment. The second point is on what we do with them? The advice we have had from Pirbright with wild deer is that if we actually go around shooting lots of wild deer we will actually disperse them and they will be more trouble than if we leave them alone. As the disease in wild deer goes through the deer they should not become carriers and it should gradually disappear. I think in answer to your question there are reports. We have had nothing positive back yet but we are still investigating. If there is an infected farm with deer on it then we might kill one or two of them to have a look and see if we can find anything.

  Chairman: A couple of brief interventions from Owen and Lembit and then we will come to Austin.

Mr Paterson

  246. Minister, you rightly said that you would not proceed with a policy of vaccination without the consent of the farming community. What would be the mechanism for determining that? Would it be the national NFU? Would it be the local NFU? Would it be the whole of farms and, if so, what figures would you need to activate it?
  (Mr Brown) I think it would have to be a very high consensus. Remember the policy will work if people are co-operating with it. If people want to resist the policy it is not for me to set out all the measures that people might adopt but it seems to me that there is quite a range of things which people could do. The whole purpose of bringing the disease to an end is to help the industries that are being compromised by it, not just the livestock sector and the farming, it is all the other rural enterprises whose businesses are being affected by the existence of the disease. It would require a high measure of support and that would mean support from the leadership of the different farming unions. It is not just the NFU and the NFU's policy committee that are opposed, the Farmers' Union in Wales, the Scottish Farmers' Union, the Ulster Farmers' Union are all opposed to a vaccination strategy.

  247. Does that therefore mean it is pretty unlikely that vaccination will be pursued because you are not able to reach any level of near unanimity?
  (Mr Brown) If one was to secure the farmers' agreement to this strategy, and in theory there is a compelling case for a vaccination strategy, particularly the vaccination to live policy strategy that I have described earlier, it would be also be necessary to offer assurances about the acceptability of a product to retailers and by the processors that sell in to the retailers. The retailers have perfectly fairly made the point to Government that although they will, of course, co-operate with the policies of the Government, their own businesses are actually determined by the responses of consumers. If consumers argue for a differentiated product, and one is seen as better than the other, they will not be stocking the product that consumers will not buy. If consumer resistance is actually stronger than that and ended up compromising whole product ranges, then that would have pretty damaging effects on the retail trade and would compromise existing export businesses that are of considerable value. The dairy industry alone accounts for something like £1.3 billion in exports and all that trade is still there. There are a great many uncertainties in all this.

Mr Öpik

  248. Dr Paul Kitching for the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright said in an interview on Saturday night on I think it was Channel 4 News: "The data which the modellers really require to input the model has not been made available and if there is not good data going in to a model one has to question the value of the data coming out". Now it seems to me on the question of vaccination that a lot of the assumptions leading to determination on whether to vaccinate or not are dependent on what that model is telling us. Now if Dr Kitching is concerned about that surely we should all be concerned. What are you doing about the quality of the data?
  (Mr Brown) I rely on professional advice and I think trying to turn myself into an amateur scientist would just be a mistake. These are very serious questions. For veterinary advice of course I rely on the Chief Vet, Jim Scudamore. For the interpretation of the epidemiology I rely on the four groups that are working under Professor King's guidance, who is the Chief Scientist. I think to try and substitute a political judgment on what is after all a scientific question would be a mistake, although I would say that those doing the modelling actually congratulated the Department on the quality of the statistical information that is coming forward.


  249. Lembit, you can have the first question to Professor King who is coming on Wednesday.
  (Mr Brown) I think it is my obligation as a political head of the Department if I dispute a scientific recommendation to say so publicly and to say why.

  250. I think you were very sensible to say that you did not know anything about this matter and that was not what you were paid for.
  (Mr Brown) That was not quite what I said.

  251. Somebody else is paid to give you the advice and since one of the people who is paid to give you advice is going to be in front of this Committee on Wednesday I thought Lembit ought to ask the question.
  (Mr Brown) We have done our best to put the advice available to Government and, indeed, the alternative views in to the public domain. I did take the unprecedented step of laying on a presentation on these questions of vaccination and epidemiology both for the journalists and for Members of Parliament.

  Chairman: I am sure as gifted amateurs we all struggle for the same goal.

Mr Öpik

  252. Having marked my territory for Wednesday I will ask another question. Very briefly, there is a school of thought which has been presented to me by someone called Janet Hughes, and others, who think that there is a very strong case for vaccination in the long term. Do you have any viewpoint about whether a vaccination strategy might meaningfully be discussed on a Europe-wide basis thereby taking away some of the problems with regard to export, though I accept that will be a completely different approach to managing the illness?
  (Mr Brown) Yes. I intend to discuss this with Laurens Brinkhorst, the Dutch Agriculture Minister, when we meet tomorrow. The Dutch have a similar problem to ourselves. They have foot and mouth disease. They have contained it using similar strategies to ourselves except that because of the nature of their industry—it is intensive and there are difficulties with the disposal routes—they have adopted for a vaccination strategy to avoid culling all of the animals out at an early stage. I want to explore with the Dutch Minister his exit strategy from his situation. It is localised at the minute. They have not got the spread we have here. I also want to explore his views, and indeed the views of other Ministers later on in the day when we have the full Council, as to whether a vaccination strategy for the future, in other words not just in the present context, could play a part in a European Union response. It seems to me that if this is to be the case—and I certainly think it is worth exploring—we need to be very clear indeed about what we believe is right for the market place, for the products of animals that are being vaccinated, and then explain ourselves very carefully indeed to our fellow citizens. Because, just as a strategy can only succeed, I believe, with the broad support of the farming community, that support can only be obtained, I also believe, by absolutely ensuring that the strategy will be acceptable to consumers and, therefore, to retailers and processors. I do think that the starting point for this is the public health argument which is very clear. Professor Krebs could not have been clearer, but there are consumer questions. In this debate the consumer truly is king.

  253. You are going to take that up in Europe?
  (Mr Brown) I shall be exploring that tomorrow morning with the Dutch Minister and in a more general discussion later on in the day at the Council of Ministers.

  Chairman: I think that is enough on vaccination. We need to move on a little bit. Austin Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell

  254. That is a shame because I want to ask a couple of vaccination questions to start with.
  (Mr Brown) I was expecting fishing.

  Mr Mitchell: Fishing is a forgotten industry in all this. It has got a similar crisis.


  255. Many a word spoken in jest, Minister, an unwise interjection, if I may say so. We are not going to pursue it now.
  (Mr Brown) I am sorry, I had a considerable sum of money—

Mr Mitchell

  256. On the European side, is it correct that vaccination is not really feasible because, for the purpose of exports, Europe is regarded as one nation, therefore if one part of that market vaccinates it invalidates the exports from everybody?
  (Mr Brown) No. It would be perfectly possible to regionalise the European Union, just as it is possible to regionalise individual Member States within the European Union and just as other countries worldwide, for the purposes of international trade, regionalise.

  257. The second question is really are you effectively saying that the NFU has a veto on vaccination?
  (Mr Brown) No, I am saying the consumers do. If anyone has the veto it is public opinion.

  258. Effectively you have conceded one. Government has shifted feet on the issue.
  (Mr Brown) Not really. As the situation has evolved the use that we make of the different policy instruments that are at our disposal has been reconsidered in the light of the developing situation. It has moved fairly quickly indeed. The bottom line is this. I do not think it would be right as a political head of the Department to try to force in a policy that was going to be faced with substantial consumer, retailer and farmer resistance. Unless there is a consensus for it, or at least an overwhelming measure of support for it, I think in the very difficult circumstances in which we now find ourselves, trying to put a policy of this kind into place by compulsion would be a pretty difficult thing to do. I also believe it would be the wrong thing to do. As I said in answer to an earlier question, there is an awful amount of hurt and uncertainty and fear, just sheer human pain already caused by this disease. To set communities against each other and to have local disputes between those who want a vaccination and those who do not, and to have people trying to resist a first vaccination because they believed it was wrong in principle, to set all that going and on to an uncertain world I think would be the wrong thing to do. As I said in my opening address, the fact is that the number of new infected premises is steadily coming down. Comparing the last seven days with the previous seven days—the previous seven days shows a steady and remorseless decline—suggests that the present policies, painful though they are, and I know they are, are biting. With the decline in the number of new cases so the immediate case for vaccination declines. In response to Lembit's question, do we need to thoroughly review all the courses that outbreaks might take, remember this one has been unprecedented, and have a very thorough review led by David Byrnes' Directorate in the European Union? Yes, I think we should do that and I think we should play a part in instigating those discussions and making our contribution to it.

  259. Thank you. I had better move on now to my designated area which is managing the crisis. The obvious question is who is really in charge of the management of the outbreak? As Beaverbrook would have put it who is in charge of the clattering train?
  (Mr Brown) Whatever this resembles I do not think it is a clattering train. Who is in charge? Well, the Prime Minister is in charge. Given that the response has required a number of different Government Departments, and all that has had to be co-ordinated and delivered, I think it is absolutely right that the Prime Minister has intervened in the way in which he has. Indeed it is difficult to see how we could have delivered as much as we have delivered as quickly as we have delivered it without his personal leadership.

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