Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 464-479)




  464. Well, gentlemen, so we meet again. Right, well, you have listened to that lot; what do you make of it?

  (Mr Gill) How long have we got, Chairman?

  465. Until one o'clock.
  (Mr Gill) Well, Chairman, I have made it clear repeatedly, over the last eight weeks, more particularly in the last four weeks, one of the key options you raised was the use of vaccination within the whole remit of controlling the disease, and there is nothing new that I have heard today; indeed, the information that you had was, as you correctly pointed out, only part of the answer and part of the reasons on the question of the pros and cons of vaccination, on which there has been much confusion. Perhaps the most pertinent point that was made was by Dr Alex Donaldson, when he said vaccinated animals can replicate it, they can shed it and they can infect other animals. The problems with vaccination are complex; the examplar that could have been used was the one in Saudi Arabia, where they have high biosecurity, they have a desert around them, very intensive dairy herds, all vaccinated on a regular basis, and yet they have seen significant breakdowns to this particular strain of virus. If we can also comment on one of the questions that was asked, I think it was Mr Öpik asked the question, should we let it become endemic, and I think you yourself raised the question, perhaps it is not going to have any major effect. There have been many who have said it is the same as a common cold; indeed, the RNA structure is similar to common cold, and, as Professor King made the point, there are many commonalities in the way it is spread. But in the effects on livestock itself there are major differences. In the extreme, we have seen in infected flocks this year lamb mortality, and reference was made by Dr Donaldson to the effect that it affects new-born; we have seen lamb mortality of up to 90 per cent, that is a massive mortality. Indeed, that could well be one of the markers that we can use in the hefted flocks, the hill flocks, that we can examine them as they are lambing at this time and see what the mortality is there. But even in the dairy sector we have to look at the effects on dairy yield, which are not the same as in some of the third world countries, where the dairy cow may be yielding only 500 or 1,000 litres per year, and in a high-yielding herd the drop in production is massive, from 7,000 or 8,000 down to a couple of thousand litres per year; and it will take some considerable time, two or three years, to regain the majority of that productive capacity, not it all. In the pig sector, and again this is important, particularly when you are looking at a vaccination policy, Dr Donaldson mentioned the two- to three-year cycle, that cycle obviously is of a different order in pigs because their reproductive rate is much greater and the number of new-born is much greater than any of the other two species, and so the points there are very great. And I think a final observation, Chairman, would come from our status in Europe, which has been of enormous concern to me throughout this. For reasons that you are well aware of, following on first from BSE then with the outbreak of classical swine fever, last year, which we were not the first to have, and then with foot and mouth, there have been those in Europe, I believe misguidedly and erroneously, who regard us as a dirty country, and it is my particular concern that we remove that slur on the British livestock sector as rapidly as possible. That has been a concern from a practical farming point of view, but it has also been a concern from a trading point of view; and certainly international companies, like Nestle«, have made that point clear, that if they are to maintain their presence in the United Kingdom that is a concern from their perspective. But I think there is also a perspective of breeding companies. I have been approached by many of the leading breeding pig companies, in particular, we are the genetic resource of large parts of the world in the pig sector, and their concerns about the misunderstanding of a vaccination policy have been acute. The figures for the last four years showed we exported approximately 100,000 breeding pigs around the world, and until some protocol is established in the future, if that is what is going to be the route in the future, with vaccination, it would be totally counterproductive to contemplate introducing a policy that had not been agreed, and particularly mid-way through a particular outbreak.

  466. Can I ask you not whether you support vaccination or not, because we have got a pretty clear idea of that; quite simply, do you expect that there will be vaccination in the course of this outbreak?
  (Mr Gill) No; unless there are other factors that come into play that have not been anticipated at this time. And I should make it clear that, the exact time, I cannot be precise, but it would be about four weeks ago, when we were seeing a massive increase in the number of cases in the region of Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, but particularly, from my particular concerns, the Cumbria area, I was in active consideration of ring-vaccination, particularly with concerns if the outbreak had spread down the M6 corridor, along the coastal strip to the western side, and along the strip to the north east side, along the Scottish border, and there was an argument that we were considering of using vaccination on that basis. I think, Chairman, one point that has not perhaps come out this morning is the confusion, that has certainly been of importance to me, that when this started the only form of vaccination policy on offer was vaccination to kill, and it still has not become clear why, suddenly, in the middle of it, vaccination to live became an option, certainly, against the backdrop of what we have seen in Holland. When I was in Brussels, approximately three weeks ago, it was my clear understanding that the Dutch Government was intent on allowing those animals that they had vaccinated, under the conditions that we would envisage for ring-vaccination, as laid down in the EU Protocols, when you had a limited outbreak, they were intending to let them live, for public opinion reasons, in Holland. And I think it is particularly relevant that they have subsequently changed their minds, for whatever reasons, to go through a slaughter policy. My members have made it very clear to me that the strains that they were under, with having the threat there that their animals were going to be slaughtered with foot and mouth were severe, but to have a `vaccination to kill' policy hanging over them, with an indefinite death penalty over their herds and flocks, was something that they found absolutely intolerable and they prefer to proceed with the `slaughter and destruction' policy with the utmost vigour.

Mr Mitchell

  467. You have indicated that one of the reasons for opposing vaccination was that it would reinforce the impression that this is a dirty country; but is not that impression true, are we not a dirty country? And why do all these outbreaks and problems keep occurring here; is it something about the scale of agriculture, is it something about the cheap-jack operation, of cutting costs? Why is it that we have these problems breaking out in this country?
  (Mr Gill) Of the three diseases I have mentioned, classical swine fever, the middle one, we were not the first country to get it, indeed, it had caused major problems in Germany, in Denmark and in parts of Holland, for some considerable time, leading to the slaughter of vast numbers of animals in those countries, and which has actually predicated their thinking about slaughter policy. Indeed, I would add to that, the concerns about the slaughter policy in Belgium were predicated by another dirty issue, the dioxin scandal, of a year ago, or more, which I am sure the Vice Chairman of the Committee will remember well. There are concerns though about BSE, and we still do not know, even with the best of hindsight, exactly how it started, and speculation does not help. But there is that suggestion then, with BSE starting here and foot and mouth coming in, that we have something wrong. If there is something wrong, with foot and mouth, aside from what went wrong once the virus got into the country, it must be one key factor: how did we come to let the virus into Europe, not just Britain, into Europe, because it came from without Europe and it came in illegally. And I think the evidence that has been shown in the media, in the farming newspapers, in Farmers' Weekly and then elsewhere, has shown the amount of personal illegal importation in suitcases, which I find incredible, of exotic species that would never be allowed to be imported legally, and illegal commercial importations, coming in containers, with incorrectly declared manifests, saying perhaps that there are fruit or vegetables, and the back of the container is filled with that, give me enormous cause for concern. And I cannot but compare the situation with entry into Europe and entry into the other, shall I call them, `free trading' countries of the world, USA and Australia and New Zealand, and see what rigour is taken there. I remember full well when they found a minute part of cow dung on the instep of my shoe, when I entered New Zealand, and my shoes were given back to me some time later in a sealed bag, fumigated, and I felt I had almost been fumigated myself. Furthermore, since the foot and mouth outbreak, Chairman, New Zealand has taken extreme precautions to prevent it ever happening there; and if I inadvertently misdeclared my job of work and my relationships with farming when I enter those countries, I understand I may even be liable to imprisonment for a considerable period.

  468. Is it your contention that British agriculture is no dirtier, messier or worse than that in other European countries?
  (Mr Gill) My contention is that it is cleaner and of a better standard than anywhere else in Europe.

  469. Is there a case then for a full public inquiry, to establish these facts?
  (Mr Gill) I believe that there needs to be a full and proper debate on the whole aspect of farming systems, I have welcomed that many times in the media. I relish the opportunity to be fully involved in that, because I think the suggestion that foot and mouth was caused by intensive or industrial farming, depending upon which country you talk to, is absolute, utter nonsense.

Mr Drew

  470. If I can move on then to the 50-odd questions, I am still not quite sure of the number, but we will call it 50.
  (Mr Gill) There were 52, Chairman, and it was reduced to 51 because they could answer two in one go.

  471. All is revealed. I now can go to sleep tonight with a clear memory. The charitable way of looking at the 51/52 questions is that you wanted to push MAFF to coming up with some answers that you could then take on to your members; the uncharitable view is, this is a wonderful way of kicking it into the long grass, because obviously there was going to be no quick response. What is your view on those questions; has it been a useful exercise, or has it meant just that, basically, we have put the thing off so it will not happen?
  (Mr Gill) Certainly, the questions were put down to concentrate the thinking in the Government. We had met, within MAFF, with a group of scientists, some two to three weeks before we tabled these questions, and listed a lot of these questions then, as our concerns about a vaccination policy. At that stage, the suggestion was, again, as Professor King has made this morning, concern about housed animals; this is of the dairy cattle that would be housed inside over winter, and, of course, now onto suckler-cow production, some of which may have been housed, some of which may not have been housed. And the question, I remember, at the end of a rather long morning, of about three hours of discussion with the scientists, was, and it was made to Dr Donaldson, no, sorry, not to Dr Donaldson, Dr Paul Kitching and another scientist, whose name eludes me, both from Pirbright, both authorities, "Is your preferred option to go for blanket vaccination in Cumbria, or to facilitate keeping cattle indoors for longer periods?" And there was no hesitation, the response was, keeping them indoors for a longer period would be better. Since then, we have clarified many of the questions. One of our questions was, how long would a pasture remain infective, after sheep that had had foot and mouth had been on that pasture; this struck us as rather crucial, seeing as it has been stated many times that sheep are the major cause of this problem. Originally, we were told that this could be 40 to 50 days; of course, that is a major difference from three to seven days, as is now being suggested. And, of course, the determinant there is the weather outside. If a pasture that has had infected sheep on, and the virus has become transmitted via dung, or wool, to the pasture, dries out totally then the virus is extinguished from that pasture. In the period of time we are talking about now, with spring, hopefully, about to blossom, the chances of that happening are much greater. So it is a matter of looking at each individual situation and assessing it. Indeed, I think I took it, from what I have heard this morning are the suggestions from the understanding of this outbreak is perhaps the emphasis on the risk of cattle being put out to pasture from winter accommodation perhaps has been overplayed rather than underplayed. I am sorry, I have gone off at a tangent to answer some of the points.

  472. No, I think that is a useful explanation. Clearly, on the back of the vaccination debate, for good or bad then, you have been put at the centre of the argument about the way in which the Government has handled this. With the benefit of hindsight, is that right, is that good for the NFU, because, clearly, as well as the Government being in the frame for the blame game, the NFU is? Certainly, it is fair to say, and I have seen you on Newsnight, you can get various farmers to come on and say, "Well, you know, not only is the NFU not providing any leadership, it's providing the wrong leadership," and so on. Is this right, is this good for you, is it good for the Government, that you have had this up-front approach?
  (Mr Gill) My job is to represent the interests of the farming industry and my members. I think the first thing I should say is, I am not alone in this concept, many from within the industry have echoed those thoughts, I have got reams of faxes. I have met this morning with the milk co-operative, United Milk, they told me that they were totally behind me. I have met with the breeding pig companies, they have reiterated that, time and time again. I have met with Nestle« and talked about the implications for their industry. I have met with veterinary associations, the British Cattle Veterinary Association was with me when I talked, in three sessions last week, to Professor King and his team, and are totally at one with us. The RSPCA have indicated their concerns about a vaccination policy. And I have not had chance to verify this, Chairman, but I always do believe what I read in the papers, as I am sure you do, but the Daily Mail, last week, having quoted my position on vaccination, then went on to say: "His opposition was given renewed force by two eminent institutes on foot-and-mouth and livestock disease." And I will not quote exactly what they said, but they referred to Dr James Pearson, of the Office Internationale des Epizooties, in Paris, and Dr Yves Cheneau, of the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation; of course, they are part of the United Nations, who support the line that we have taken. I wish that it were other, I wish that we could avoid this mass destruction of animals that is so painful and costly not just to farmers but the allied industries, the tourist industry, and many other sections of society. But I think, as you have heard, from the representation on the science this morning, there has been no other option demonstrated; and, if I make one comment about that point, I think it reflects perhaps a lack of prioritisation from the science to deliver a properly understandable vaccination policy, and the continual cutbacks in research and development funding that we have seen, particularly in the agricultural sector. Remember the lesson we learned from BSE. If BSE had happened two years later, the Government, at that time, were in the process of terminating all spongiform encephalopathy research facilities in this country; if we had not had the expert advice of Dr Donaldson and Mr Kitching and many others at Pirbright, we would have been in a far worse position. But that research capability has been sadly strained, and the Institute of Animal Health has made representations to me, on a number of occasions, over a consistent period, that their research funding has put at risk the agricultural system in Britain from a lot of potential diseases, and will continue to do so, unless this is corrected.

  473. One final question, on vaccination, and I take your point about the need to strengthen the service, I think it is one thing that will come out of this whole set of problems. But it is clear, from the evidence we heard on Monday, and the evidence that you heard prior to you being questioned, that there seems to be a view that we have passed the vaccination issue now, in terms of its effective introduction, and yet you did qualify your remarks earlier by saying, if the SVS came to you and said, "There is a case to be made for some limited use of vaccination," that you would accept that. Can we just be clear and put it on the record now whether you think that time has now gone?
  (Mr Gill) The questions I asked two weeks ago; why, now, when it was not why two weeks before that, because, at that stage, the disease was increasing, we had the three curves that you have seen this morning, we were not certain we were on Curve C, we could have been still on Curve A, remember these were models, and there was a stronger argument at that stage, and that was when we were prepared to look at an element of ring-vaccination to try to contain the element of the disease, with a slaughter policy following. That would not have been popular with my members, but for the benefit of all that was something that I was prepared to consider and did discuss with Government, but it did not appear necessary because, at that stage, the three areas I mentioned before, the M6 corridor, the coastal strip and the border to the north east with Scotland, the disease was not moving outwards. So the condition I would put is that there was something unforeseen happened in the epidemiology of this disease in this particular outbreak that led us into the position that we had to do something urgently. But there are very, very severe unknowns with such a policy, that we would need to be assured on, very urgently.

Dr Turner

  474. You heard Professor King, I think, make it very clear that the case for I thought it was spot vaccination was, in fact, in trying to save valuable animals, which is very different from seeing it as a tool to actually cull the outbreak. In being opposed to that, as you have been, were you driven mainly by science, or by politics and the concerns which your question raised about the market implications for the future of those animals which were, in fact, vaccinated? Which was the key to your concern, hard science, or, in fact, the fear of the way the public might react?
  (Mr Gill) I think, two elements there; science and the market. Let me take the science part first. I think what you must take is from Dr Ferguson's comments, in which he was very precise, he said up to 94,000 animals may be saved, and then, in the corroborating evidence given to you, there were several statements made to suggest that this had been based on an overly pessimistic scenario, they said they had been very conservative, correctly so, in their predictions. And there is the question then that this figure could be much, much lower, as to 94,000, indeed, the suggestions that I have, on the basis of what Professor King said this morning and what has happened in the last few days, are that this would be the case. There is a second point in the science as well, which picks up on the point that Dr Donaldson made, which I have already quoted, I hope, verbatim, when he said vaccinating animals can replicate it, they can shed it and they can infect other animals. And I was not convinced by the arguments that were put to me that the risk was removed, that those animals vaccinated could not—sorry, get the negatives right. I was not convinced by the arguments put to me that those vaccinated animals would then not prolong the epidemic further and lead to more infections around the perimeter of the vaccinated area, for example, or with calves being born within the infected area during the ensuing period. Indeed, the best example I could find, which was dated but referred to vaccination policy in cattle, as opposed to the Italian example which has been much quoted, which was principally in pigs, and it varies with species, was in Zimbabwe, where the experience there prolonged the disease, and they found that vaccinated animals were actually causing infections up to three years after the initial vaccination policy. Now that is not to say that would happen here, but I was staring into an unknown, that was one hypothesis that was the outcome of the statement that Dr Donaldson made. And then, on that basis, you found, in Zimbabwe's experience, although you saved animals in the short term, your outturn could have been no better or even it could have been worse. Now, on the consumer point, I was at pains to make the point, as I have repeatedly throughout this outbreak, that there are no human health connotations with meat or with milk; but I am not stupid enough, having gone through the hiatus over BSE and over GM products, as your Chairman has referred to, to be unaware that the consumer has and does make other choices. Equally, the major companies have made choices. I have faxes here from meat companies, who have been quite clear that they would not take any product from vaccinated animals. In fact, a very short one I could read, from a catering company, Russell Hume: "I have, over the last two days, had customers seeking assurances that if vaccination commenced NO meat supplies by Russell Hume would be sourced from vaccinated cattle." I did not solicit that; that came, on the fax, unsolicited. The Chairman of the National Consumers' Council rang me to say that she was concerned that consumers have a choice, and that meat or milk from vaccinated animals should be clearly labelled as such. Now we all know what that sort of labelling would require. The Chief Executive of the Scottish Consumers' Association, on television, on their Sunday programme, a few weeks ago, made similar comments. All this raised real concerns with me; that my members who had been exposed to vaccination, on the suggestion, here was a simple solution, "Vaccinate, you can turn your cattle out, everything in the garden is marvellous," as was suggested in one fax that went out from one of your Members to his constituents, saying, "Do you want to go down this route?", that received the response, "Yes, of course, I do," without considering these broader consequences that were of enormous concern to me. So the market concerned me and the science concerned me.

  475. But to return, just very briefly, to the Chairman's question to Professor King, if you were telling the Prime Minister today, you would be saying, firmly, "Off the agenda"?
  (Mr Gill) I think I said that when I saw him last week.

  Chairman: We need to move on. I think we have thrashed vaccination pretty heavily, over this morning, so I will ask if we could be really fairly crisp on any further questions on vaccination, because there are other matters we do wish to address.

Mr Paterson

  476. Very briefly, do you think the opposition, at the beginning, to vaccination amongst your members stems very much from a misunderstanding that vaccination automatically required the slaughter later of the vaccinated stock? Because you touched on the OIE, and I will not copy your fine French accent; their International Health Code 2000 says that free disease status returns one year from the last vaccination, or one year from the last active slaughter, and it got up very early on this tremendous hostility, because it was thought that vaccination meant slaughter and it does not. If that had been known earlier on, do you think the attitude would have been different?
  (Mr Gill) I am sorry, Chairman, if I answer this question I may have to go into a little detail. Two points. One, I was not convinced, even with the statements made as recently as two weeks ago, that we would not have to slaughter in this country. When we studied the document, the EU veterinary decision, which made cross-reference to another document, whose number I forget, there was a clear silence on whether or not the animals could live or have to be slaughtered. And, set that against the backdrop of the Dutch decision, I could well see, in one or two months' time, the Commission saying, "Well, actually, we think you ought to slaughter these animals." Imagine the cruelty then, having gone through all the problems of vaccination, not to have that firm confirmation. I have asked repeatedly about firm confirmation, I have not been able to achieve that particular point. The second part was the concern about rolling vaccination. I have been led to believe that you go in just once and vaccinate and then that is it. I pose questions, what happens to the calves of suckler-cows, or, indeed, of dairy animals; how long is their maternal immunity given through colostrum, indeed, what about dairy cows that may not necessarily get a full dose of colostrum from their mothers, or continue the size of dose, and I am told that it may be for two or four months. And I am then saying, well, what happens to the exposure of those calves from those animals, I repeat, to quote again from Dr Donaldson this morning, that have been vaccinated and can replicate, shed it and infect other animals; does that mean those calves have to be vaccinated at two, three or four months, in which case you then rapidly get into a rolling vaccination problem? And the final point, there is a fundamental difference in the world perception of a vaccination programme of a one-off, as opposed to a one that has to be repeated; and the scientists could not rule out that there would have to be a second vaccination at six months, and which then will have had enormous implications, longer-term implications, for trade. So I am just raising the unknowns that I could not get the answers for; and, with those unknowns, as I have said on a number of occasions, I was being asked to gamble the future of the British livestock industry, akin to putting a ball on the roulette wheel.

  477. Did you look at the outbreaks in Albania and Macedonia, Greece and across northern Africa, in the Magreb, where the EU sponsored and encouraged a very brief campaign of protective vaccination and eliminated the disease in a few weeks?
  (Mr Gill) No, I have not studied all cases around the world. The case for vaccination, I believe, and I believe it was, I think, in those cases, where you go in at the outset of the disease, you go in with the ring-vaccination and then you can contain it very quickly; and, of course, that is what happened in Holland. The problem we had in Britain, it had been about for three weeks, or thereabouts, before we knew about it, and it had become so evidently spread throughout the country; and that meant that the original concept of ring-vaccination, as conceived by the European Union, did not apply to the British situation.

  Chairman: We must move on, sorry, because we have got to finish at one o'clock; we have got to really gallop now. Lembit; sorry about that.

Mr Öpik

  478. How much do you think it would cost in lost exports, where we had set up a vaccination policy, do you have a figure?
  (Mr Gill) It is difficult to tell, because the big unknown is the serology tests that need to be done on the sheep flock. I have real concerns about the level of antibody find that there will be across our national sheep flock. I believe it is quite likely we are going to have to carry out a very high level of serological testing of the entire flock, and one of the aspects that I need to discuss further with Government is exactly how quickly that can be wrapped up and what sort of timespan can be delivered on that. What possibility there would be, say, for negotiating the lifting of the embargo on the exports of milk and milk products that have been pasteurised in advance of being given that free status, because we know, this has been told to you this morning, that the virus is easily killed by pasteurisation. And that is particularly important, particularly with regard to the Nestle« plant in Dalston, in Cumbria, 85 per cent of its product goes outside the European Union onto all markets; so that was a major concern. So the amount of money is significant, it amounts to hundreds of millions a year. I think, one other comment, there has been some suggestion that just because you might vaccinate in Cumbria, or Cumbria and Devon, it will only pertain to bans on those areas; that is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, and it would classify the country as a whole. I am afraid, countries around the world do not regard the niceties of Cumbria as a region, they look upon the United Kingdom as a whole.

  479. I have two other questions. Just for absolute clarity, do you, or do you not, share the Government's confidence that retailers will keep their promise and actually stock milk products from vaccinated animals?
  (Mr Gill) The retailers have given me assurances they will. The question is whether or not it has to be labelled separately, and that demand comes from consumers and creates a two-tier market. As has been said to me repeatedly, it is not that people positively want to go out and discriminate, when faced with the choice, "Well, I can buy this anyway, without that mark on, so why not buy that?".

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