Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 260-279)

MONDAY 23 APRIL 2001

RT HON NICHOLAS BROWN AND MR JIM SCUDAMORE

  260. In 1967, as I understand it, the Prime Minister did not intervene in this kind of fashion, it was left to MAFF to manage it and that would seem more sensible. Why should the Prime Minister spend his time running around the country looking at the backsides of cattle and the mouths of sheep?
  (Mr Brown) No, I think it is right that he takes charge and sets a lead. The comparisons between the 1967 outbreak and the present one are misleading. Remember I think they were slaughtering it was something like 90 premises a day in the 1967 outbreak and we seem to have peaked at about half that. The 1967 outbreak went on for about nine months. Who knows when the tail end of this will finally finish but we are clearly on the downward trajectory, at least that is what the epidemiologists advise now. At least in part that is to do with the intensity of the effort that has been put in to removing the disease. There are other differences with 1967.

  261. You seemed to be doing fine at the start.
  (Mr Brown) That is very kind of you.

  Mr Mitchell: All of a sudden the Prime Minister takes over.

  Chairman: And it goes downhill from then on.

Mr Mitchell

  262. It is difficult to know what now are the chains of command. You have got the army, you have the private veterinarians, contractors and you have various other people involved. The chains of command come together under the Prime Minister or under you?
  (Mr Brown) The chain of command, of course, comes together with the Prime Minister at the head. In fact we all meet regularly together and the support that we are getting from the armed services, let me say, is absolutely invaluable. The Ministry of Agriculture, within its own purview, neither has the financial resources nor the logistical resources to undertake extra work of the scale that is demanded and within the timeframe that is demanded by this outbreak. So we have had to ask other people for help and we have done so and it has been willingly given.

  263. How about the devolved authorities? Where do they come in? How is it co-ordinated with them?
  (Mr Brown) I meet regularly with the other devolved ministers. There is a regular meeting which takes place anyway, once a month. We are quite used to working together. Jim Scudamore is the Chief Veterinary Officer for, I think, it is Great Britain, is that right, Jim?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes.
  (Mr Brown) So, therefore, the professional veterinary advice that is coming to myself, to Ross Finnie and to Carwyn Jones is the same and, of course, within the devolved territories then the devolved ministers head up the implementation of it. It is all working pretty well. We are in regular contact.

  264. It is working satisfactorily?
  (Mr Brown) Yes, I think so. We are in regular contact, as I say, by phone and our officials meet regularly and we meet regularly as well.

  265. Okay. Now, I think in the last statement to the House, you acknowledged that the report-to-slaughter in 24 hours was occurring in fewer than 80 per cent of cases and that the 48 hour target for contiguous culling was going to be more difficult to meet still. Are those two targets being met now?
  (Mr Brown) There has been a significant improvement. I would like to ask Jim if he can give you the latest figures rather than doing them from my own memory.
  (Mr Scudamore) Well, I think on the 21st we met the report-to-slaughter target in ten cases, in three we did not meet the target. It is quite important to get these animals killed as quickly as possible and it has always been our aim that where we pick up disease we have the animals killed as soon as practical. Most of the ones which do not meet the 24 hours target are generally completed shortly afterwards. There are a number of reasons for not meeting the 24 hours. There has been valuation, there has been collecting animals together and on some very big farms there are a large number of animals to get together. There are various reasons why the 24 hours is not met but, as I say, the recent thoughts are that we met it on ten cases but we did not meet it on three. There was not much time between the 24 hours and when it was actually completed. We have been getting similar figures. As I say, there are some difficulties with meeting the 24 hour target in terms of size.

  266. Those are in particular areas?
  (Mr Scudamore) It varies in different areas. In some areas the target is met where there are few cases, where there are only one or two cases, the target is often met; where there are more cases then sometimes it is not met.
  (Mr Brown) Can I just add two points to that? The number of cases that we are seeing now is as a result of the interventions that were made ten days to a fortnight ago. In other words, the situation then was not as good as it is now but nevertheless the number of cases is steadily coming down. I think that is significant. The second point is that where we do not meet the target it is often because we have made a start on the culling but have not been able to bring it to a conclusion within the 24 hours. But the animals which show signs of infectivity are taken out first, and that is quite an important intervention on its own.

  267. What about the disposal figures? The figures that we have got from our advisor indicate that up to the week ending 8 April—so you might be able to update us on the subsequent period—the number slaughtered was increasing steadily. The number disposed of is actually falling in April as against March. Why is that?
  (Mr Brown) Because of the effectiveness of interventions that are being made. One of the statistical difficulties we have had is that the report times are not the same and therefore looking for the gap between the figures, the report to disposal, shows that it is not a directly comparable series. We have tried to make the statistics actually comparable and meaningful as we have presented them. When an animal is authorised to slaughter that is something that is noted immediately, when an animal has been finally disposed of it is notified after the event, so the gap between the two will be bigger than the truthful gap every time you try to take a slice of life.

  268. What are the actual figures for disposal?
  (Mr Brown) We have a real disposal problem in Devon where there are still something like over 100,000 animals awaiting disposal. That is carcasses awaiting disposal. The backlog is practically cleared in the rest of the country. I do not know, Jim, if you can give any useful figure?

  269. Have they gone up?
  (Mr Brown) The truth of the matter is that the disposal routes are opened up in the areas where the demand is the highest and are workable. There is a difficulty in Devon because the water table makes burial a difficult option. Every site we have, either for incineration or for landfill, has some objection to it. The truth is there is no popular way of disposing of these carcasses.

  270. Is burial being used more than it was in 1967 or less?
  (Mr Brown) I could not give you an exact measure with 1967. In 1967 farm sizes were smaller and burial on site was a far more practical alternative for a relatively small amount of animals than it would be for a flock of 10,000 sheep on a modern extensive holding in Cumbria, for example. The situations are not directly comparable. Where we can use burial we do, where we can use landfill we do. We are getting as much as we can away to render and disposal through the purpose built rendering plants but, of course, the over five year cattle have to have priority for that route in order to control the prion diseases. It is still necessary to make use of on site incineration with all of the aesthetic objections to that.

  271. Finally, there have been concerns raised about the health effects of burning, particularly in respect of dioxins. Are there health implications? Are these looked at? What can you say?
  (Mr Brown) We are advised by both the Environment Agency on the environmental effects and by the Department of Health on health effects. The Chief Medical Officer is now revising his advice, is effectively pulling together advice that has already been given, putting it in one place and reissuing it. I would expect that to be essentially reissued shortly.

Chairman

  272. Minister, in Devon, as you know, people are very concerned about the latest pyre and in Cumbria you have decided not to go ahead with burning. If that advice were that there is a health risk or a concern that leaves you in a bit of, I was going to say a hole but you have a problem with holes in Devon and a problem with incineration, where does that leave you?
  (Mr Brown) There is no absolutely perfect risk-free solution to any of these problems. It is about balancing risks and trying to do the right thing overall but doing nothing is not a solution either. On every decision we make a careful assessment and do what is proportionate and what is right. Sometimes this is very, very difficult for people locally who will want the carcasses disposed of but will object to whatever particular disposal route is put forward, particularly if it is close to where they live.

  Chairman: I have got three requests for short interventions before we go to the next series of questions.

Mr Paterson

  273. When you talk about cases you said last time you are only talking about infected premises, is that right? So 1,440 is infected premises?
  (Mr Brown) That is correct.

  274. How many other farms have been taken out as contiguous culls? How many other farms have been taken out as SOSs?
  (Mr Scudamore) We have taken out around about 3,500 as contiguous premises, dangerous contacts and SOSs.

  275. And SOSs combined?
  (Mr Scudamore) Somewhere around that, yes. I have not got the detailed figures with me.
  (Mr Brown) Does that include the infected premises or do you have to add the two together?
  (Mr Scudamore) You have to add the two together.

  276. So 3,500 contiguous culls and SOSs?
  (Mr Brown) Yes.

  277. Because there is concern in the Welsh Marches that you changed the criteria for an SOS and IP. I have got three cases where experienced people were absolutely convinced that they had confirmed cases of foot and mouth and this was resisted by Page Street, where apparently there is now a committee of four vets, and they were told to call it an SOS. The advantage to you is that your graph here of cases on a daily basis is coming down very encouragingly because an SOS does not count as a case. Also you do not add to the carcass mountain because an SOS does not require you to take out contiguals. Am I right or am I wrong?
  (Mr Scudamore) Partly right. What we have got a problem with is diagnosis of foot and mouth disease in sheep. We have ranged from people who complain that we should confirm it on clinical grounds to those who complain that we should not confirm on clinical grounds and we should take samples and confirm it on laboratory examination. So we have a problem particularly with sheep. There is obvious clinical disease in sheep, where there are vesicles and high temperature it is relatively straight forward, but there are a lot of conditions of sheep and their feet which are not foot and mouth disease. We were getting very concerned that there was quite a high percentage of sheep which we confirmed on clinical grounds which on laboratory examination were coming back negative. That poses a problem because it means one of two things: either the sheep were, in fact, negative — they did not have foot and mouth disease — or the samples were coming back with false results (either they were the incorrect samples or they were damaged in transit or in the laboratory). What we tend to do now with sheep in particular is if it is obvious foot and mouth disease then it will be confirmed clinically and they should take samples which will go off to the laboratory. If we confirm it clinically that automatically initiates a contiguous premises cull within 48 hours. If we are not convinced it is foot and mouth disease and it does not sound obvious then we will take it as a slaughter on suspicion which means that the herd itself is slaughtered within the 24 hours to get rid of it, samples are submitted to the laboratory and if those samples come back negative then it is not confirmed, if those samples come back positive then it is confirmed.

  278. The cases I was talking about were cattle.
  (Mr Scudamore) On average over the last 20 years we have had between ten and 12 reported cases of foot and mouth a year, up to that number, which are not foot and mouth disease. Part of the problem with sheep I have explained. With cattle we would generally take the diagnosis of the clinician but if there is any question about it then we might query whether it is or is not foot and mouth and we might require samples to be taken. If the samples come back positive and it is confirmed as foot and mouth disease we initiate the contiguous premises cull.
  (Mr Brown) In the current circumstances, Chairman, for every three cases that are reported into the Department as foot and mouth disease suspects—and of course there is a heightened awareness of all this in the current circumstances—only one turns out to be confirmed. So for every one real case we are getting two that turn out to be false alarms.

Mr Drew

  279. I just wondered in a sense why we did not make more of the Northumberland Report? The Northumberland Report in many respects, although the scale of this outbreak is different and the number of movements have made it more difficult, is like a code book of how we should have handled it. I just wondered if everyone did read the damn thing.
  (Mr Brown) Where the advice is relevant to the current outbreak it has been followed. Nobody has really pointed me to some piece of advice in that report which should have been followed and has not been. There are enormous differences between the 1967 outbreak and the present one. To take the obvious issue of disposal routes: there are difficulties in using burial in Cumbria where the soil is light and the substructure is granite, and in Devon it is just our misfortune that the water table is high and a lot of water rights are privately owned. It is not a good idea to put a lot of dead livestock in the water supply and we will not do it. That means we have to examine the other routes of disposal and they will have their difficulties, not insurmountable, but they will have their difficulties as well. On the question of the role of the military it is true to say that the military were called in earlier in the 1967 outbreak but in a less prepared way and reading the report there was quite a lot of early confusion and misunderstanding—


 
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