Examination of witness (Questions 1-19)|
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
1. Professor King, welcome to the Science and
Technology Select Committee. You have been in post for a few weeks
now and we have followed your appointment with great interest;
we have followed your activities with very considerable interest,
too. It is only sad that we have not been able to meet you before
now; we had hoped to do so, and at the time when we were first
hoping that we would meet you in some capacity or other you became
very involved with the foot and mouth problem, and we thought
it would be unwise and unfair to invite you to come and see us
at that particular time. You might say that it is unwise and unfair
for us to invite you now, but rumours are that our time is short
and we thought it was better to get you before this Committee
in this Parliament rather than not. I have read, late this morning,
the transcript of the evidence that you gave to the Agriculture
Select Committee, and when someone asked you why you were not
involved in the policy of carcass disposal you made a reply to
the effect that you had barely a moment of your life to spare
and that you had not been asked to get involved in that, and in
any event you had no spare time at all at the moment, and that
we can well imagine. So, because of that, we are particularly
grateful that you have found a few moments to be with us this
afternoon, and thank you very much indeed. I wonder, perhaps,
although we do know your background, if you could start by giving
us, just very quickly, a summary of your career, and then perhaps
telling us what the priorities are that you have had since taking
office, and perhaps what they might have been if they had not
had foot and mouth overarching? Professor King.
(Professor King) Chairman, I am delighted
to be here, and in more ways than one. One is to get my head,
my body and everything else out of foot and mouth for at least
a couple of hours. I have just come from a meeting of the Foot
and Mouth Disease Group, and it is still the case that much of
my time, most of my time, is taken up with the foot and mouth
outbreak. But I am delighted to be here, and I could say that
if I had not been so taken over by FMD I would have used that
time better, hopefully to have met members of the group more informally
than I am able to; appearing before you in this way first is perhaps
not ideal. You want a little autobiography.
2. Most of it I know, because I have seen your
CV; if you just tell us the position you held in academia before
you became Chief Scientific Adviser?
(Professor King) I am a graduate of Witwatersrand
University in Johannesburg, where I did my PhD, and I was a temporary
lecturer there for a year, before coming over to Imperial College
as a post-doc. in 1963. My field of research has always been the
boundary between physics and chemistry. I am an experimentalist
who also uses state of the art computational theory, so putting
experiment and theory together is what I do. In terms of the career
development, I went from Imperial College to the same place that
Ian Gibson went to, the University of East Anglia, where we met
up, I went there in 1966, he was already there as an old hand,
and from UEA, I was a lecturer in chemical physics there, I went
on to Liverpool, as the Brunner Professor of Physical Chemistry,
in 1974. In 1988 on to Cambridge as the 1920 Professor of Physical
Chemistry, and subsequently I became Head of Chemistry there,
and Master of Downing, both of which posts I have now relinquished
in favour of the current post.
3. Remind us of the precise date that you became
Chief Scientific Adviser?
(Professor King) The precise date is October 1, but
I have always to stress that the job offer came quite late in
the day, Chairman, and I was unable to withdraw from all these
positions I held in Cambridge until the end of December, so I
was really on one or two days a week until the end of December.
4. And then how have you found the contrast
between the work you do now and academia, and apart from the contrast
there must be some similarities; is it more contrast than similarity,
or vice versa?
(Professor King) There is a massive difference, massive,
Chairman, yes. I think that the biggest difference is that I was
totally embedded in a research and teaching atmosphere, and so,
although I did have time taken up with administration, I would
say that 70 per cent of my time was still engaged directly in
doing research. I have a large research group there, and everything
was tuned in to that research and teaching atmosphere, even the
fund-raising activity, whatever activity else there was, was always
peripheral to that very clear objective. Within Government, quite
clearly, the objectives are very diverse and the cultural atmosphere
is very different, Chairman. I do not think I could have imagined
the weight of briefing notes I might be faced with.
5. I had heard, rightly or wrongly, that you
had attempted to keep your research work going at Cambridge, thinking
possibly there might be some time for doing that; but then I had
heard that you were not able to because of the total commitment
in this job, and that was before foot and mouth I heard that.
(Professor King) Chairman, could I just say, no, I
have kept my research going. I have got 15 current PhD students
and I do see them, they have been very good about coming in on
Sundays and at weekends.
6. And have you been able to set priorities?
I dare say all your priorities have been swept aside at the moment,
with the present foot and mouth, but were you in post long enough
before foot and mouth to start to set priorities?
(Professor King) Yes, I think, quite clearly, my initial
priority was to get to know how the Office of Science and Technology
itself functioned and what its role was with respect to Government
Departments, with respect to our European effort, with respect
to our international effort generally, and the relationship with
the Science and Engineering Base. So the initial phase was just
to see how it was all functioning; and, clearly, I also have in
mind how I might like to advise that it could better function.
Chairman: Thank you.
7. I am quite interested in how it all began
for you. There you were, having a quiet honeymoon period, easing
your way in, finding out what was going on, and suddenly something
happened. Could you just kind of outline in general how it moved
during this period, how you got involved, in the first place,
in the issue of foot and mouth?
(Professor King) Initially, my response was to keep
a wary eye on foot and mouth disease but from a distance, because
it seemed to me that if I got involved in asking questions within
MAFF too soon I would simply pull them away from their major effort
in dealing with the disease. The concern grew because the outbreak
continued to grow at quite a high level, and John Krebs had been
talking to groups of modellers and had got them together at the
Food Standards Agency. And he called me in to a meeting on 21
March, when I heard the output from the modellers, and various
people from MAFF were there as well, and two things were apparent
to me then, immediately. That (a) with the control measures then
in place the epidemic was out of control; and (b) the control
measures that were required to bring it under control could be
determined by detailed discussion with these modellers, in other
words, we could vary the parameters in their models so as to optimise
how best to bring the epidemic under control. So on the very next
day I began discussions with the modellers with this in mind,
and at the same time wrote to the Prime Minister saying that I
intended to get involved. Before my letter had actually been sent
from my office the Prime Minister had decided to call together
a meeting, and so Sir Richard Wilson contacted me and a meeting
of the Permanent Secretaries was called; that first met on 23
March, in the morning, and I attended that meeting. The Prime
Minister was in Stockholm. He arrived on 24 March, I think, it
was the first meeting of COBR that he chaired, and immediately
he asked me to set up a Foot and Mouth Disease Science Group to
advise COBR, on a day-by-day basis, on bringing the epidemic under
control. From that moment on I was completely taken over by foot
and mouth disease, and my diary just had to be swept aside.
8. My next question would be then, what happened?
There we were, used to Jim Scudamore on the television telling
us what was going on, so what was your position relative to him
at any point in this movement, in your role, and David Shannon,
of MAFF, and also the Minister for Science, who it seems to me
has been extremely quiet on this issue? I wondered where they
fitted into the whole process, if they did, or were they moved
aside, or what? In your opinion, what went on?
(Professor King) Can I deal with the last point first,
because the Minister for Science within the DTI, I think, never
saw this as something for him to deal with, it was rather seen
as a MAFF-related affair, and my movement into it was through
my position as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister
and the Cabinet; so it was not wearing my hat as a member of DTI
that I moved in there. In terms of the position of Jim Scudamore,
I think it is relatively straightforward, that the modellers that
I was now discussing matters with, in fine detail, were responding
to my Group, and so, immediately, the policy, which became known
as the 24-/48-hour policy, was determined from the scientific
input that came from my Group. And when it came to talking to
the media, it was quite clear that it was the scientist leading
that aspect of it that should be presenting it to the media; and
I think that that is the only reason. I think the vets who are
putting in crucial input on the virology and the development of
the disease and the control of the disease in the animals were
one part of the input to the scientific advice that I was giving.
9. A member of this Committee who is an ex-Minister
for Science, and continually tells us he was, in this Committee,
told me once that in the BSE saga he was kind of isolated from
the whole thing, too, as MAFF took it on. Do you not find it strange
that a Minister for Science is not right in the centre of all
this, even in the sense of being at the meetings just to hear
what is going on? It is for the Minister for Science to answer
that, I guess, in some ways, but, generally, do you not think
the Minister for Science should be involved with it? It says a
lot about his, or her, role in the process of science and its
impact in this country, if they are either isolated deliberately,
or they are just not told, or they do not want to get involved,
whatever the reason. It does seem strange to me, would you not
agree, that they are not involved?
(Professor King) I am an adviser and not part of the
political process. I think you are asking me a question that should
be directed to the Minister for Science. But I did not find it
strange, to be honest.
10. I mean, I could not turn the television
on, or turn a radio on, without hearing your dulcet tones, or
seeing your pretty face.
(Professor King) I apologise for that.
11. But was it not strange that you became the
high media profile of this whole campaign; do you think that is
the role for the Chief Scientific Adviser? And, skilled as you
are in PR, do you think that is the role of the Chief Scientific
Adviser, or is it just an accident that you could do it well and
(Professor King) I think I was concerned about, and
still am concerned about, overexposure on foot and mouth disease.
I would not like to be known as the Chief Scientific Adviser/FMD
person. On the other hand, it was clear at the beginning that
the clearest advice was coming from the FMD Science Group, and
I think it was the manner in which that advice was given that
got through to COBR very quickly, it was the clarity of the message,
and it was felt by the people who were running the media that
that clear message ought to go straight out to the public. So
I was not playing for that media role at all, but, nevertheless,
I could understand why I should be the person doing it.
12. If I could just check something through
with you, Professor King. In early March, Nick Brown said, at
a meeting I was involved in, when he was asked about how the disease
would evolve, and he was very irritated with people wanting very
precise answers to that, at that stage, not unnaturally, but he
actually said, "This is a biological phenomenon, not a mathematical
one," and yet, of course, precisely it was a mathematical
problem, in terms of, as it were, treating it as epidemiological.
So was it the case that he was actually being really rather badly
advised, from late February and early March, and it was not until
some guys, like you, who understood the problem rather better,
as a mathematical and not merely, as it were, a biological problem,
that really the policy started to get on the rails?
(Professor King) Mr McWalter, I think that you raise
a very important issue, because even today there is a tension
between the scientists who are concerned with modelling the epidemic
and those scientists and vets who are concerned with the disease
in the animals, the virologists; and, I think, within our FMD
Science Group, that has been a very creative tension. The modellers
have disagreed with each other on the details of input and output,
but together they can all see the point of the mathematics. Then
these are questions that are asked from the other side. And let
me just phrase it in this way. The key question is, if I have
a causal relationship between an infection in one animal and infection
spreading to another animal then, surely, what I need is to understand
that causal relationship, how does that disease go from one to
another, and if I understand it and I am smart enough to do the
detective work I can do the tracing of contacts and killing off
the animals as I discover the tracings, and that is the essential
approach of the virologist. The mathematician says, "Hang
on, this is too complex a process for me to deal with this on
a causal, case-by-case basis, I can use statistics, I can do a
stochastic analysis and then that analysis can be used to tell
me, with rather a broad brush, what action I should take."
Now those two approaches have produced quite a dynamic.
13. It is quite clear, from what you have just
said, Professor King, that the expertise to deal with this problem
was not within MAFF itself and it needed to bring in other people.
What concerns me is that the Chief Scientist in that Department
did not seem to realise that, and it was only when John Krebs
brought you in that this wider involvement was discussed. Should
not the Department itself have recognised its needs and had the
capability actually to seek out that additional help? Why did
not MAFF take the initiative?
(Professor King) Can I respond by saying that within
MAFF there is a good modeller, his name is John Wilesmith. John
is the person who put his finger on the connection between BSE
and meat and bone-meal and is a very smart scientist. So MAFF
does have a modeller of their own; and so there is the expertise
in-house, to a certain extent. I think you were asking me?
14. I feel that the Chief Scientist in MAFF
should have been alert to the need for outside help?
(Professor King) I think this is a very good question
to ask, in terms of, when this is all over and we look at all
the lessons to be learned, we are going to have to go back to
this. And, I will be absolutely honest, I have had one motivation,
and one motivation only, and even as I sit here today that is
the motivation, and that is to get this epidemic under control
and out of the way with the smallest number of animals dead at
the end of the exercise. And I have not spent any time analysing
how we got to each position on the way. I came into it on 21 March,
and since then I have been looking forward and not backward.
15. My question follows on very nicely from
the question Dr Jones has asked. You said to Dr Gibson that you
are an adviser; now, to the Agriculture Committee, last week,
you said, as an adviser, Scientific Adviser, you were not involved
in providing scientific advice on the disposal of carcasses. Well,
tell us why not; would it not have been sensible, from your point
of view, as an adviser, which you claim you are, and we respect
that, to have an overall view of the scientific advice, which
you had been brought in to carry out, rather than getting so involved
in one particular aspect of the Government policy?
(Professor King) I am glad you have asked that question,
because the initial part of your comment indicates that my response
to that question in the last Select Committee was poorly phrased;
it is not what I meant at all. I meant to say that I was completely
absorbed by the epidemiological side of what I was doing, and
I was very pleased to see that the Environment Agency and the
Department of Health had put forward a very good approach, in
my view, to the problems of disposal at the point where disposal
had mounted into an enormous problem. Now, having said that, I
attended almost every meeting of COBR; initially, COBR met twice
a day, we met through weekends, and through my attendance at COBR
I did get totally involved in the question of human health aspects
of disposal. I have got involved in other aspects as well; so,
for example, the question of vaccination and milk and meat products
from vaccinated animals, and looking at the food standards question
on that side of it. So I have involved myself in every aspect
of this campaign, but my special effort has gone into bringing
the whole thing under control.
16. Professor King, your advice seems to have
played a very major role in the decision to extend the cull to
neighbouring uninfected farms. Were you involved in the recent
decision to relax this policy in certain areas, which led to the
saving of Phoenix?
(Professor King) I am also grateful for that question.
First of all, in terms of extending the cull, what my policy stated
was very simple, bring down the rate at which you cull the infected
premise itself to less than 24 hours, was the primary thing; the
secondary aspect was to remove neighbouring premises within 48
hours. These are not necessarily uninfected animals, if we knew
they were uninfected there would be no point in doing that. The
point is that there is a statistical probability, and we measured
this at around 0.17, that each of those farms would be infected,
and it is better to take them out before the infection develops
to showing symptoms, because by that time the animals are infecting
the next farm on the chain. Now you asked me whether my advice
was altered and was altered in any way or manner related to Phoenix.
I had been arguing, I think, for about seven to ten days, on COBR,
for an alteration
17. Can you spell out COBR for us, please; or,
if not, tell us what it is?
(Professor King) Cabinet Office Briefing Room, which
is the acronym that has been given from the very beginning to
the committee that has been operating across Government Departments
for the control of this disease.
18. Thank you. You were leading to Phoenix?
(Professor King) I had been arguing that we ought
to refine the policy, for the simple reason that it was effective
but only if implementable, and it was proving difficult to implement,
particularly with dairy farmers and particularly with the Cattle
Vets Association, who felt that their animals should not be culled
unless they actually showed the symptoms of the disease. So I
went up to Cumbria, I travelled around and met many farmers and
vets, and it was quite apparent that they were very concerned
about this. To bring them on board, we designed a better definition
of a contiguous premise, which meant, essentially, that, if cattle
had been overwintered, for example, in sheds more than 50 metres
from a contiguous boundary and no animals had moved between boundary
and sheds, for all purposes, this should not be considered to
be contiguous; in other words, you would allow that element of
discretion on a contiguous cull. I was present with the Minister
for Agriculture, and we met, I think, at half-past six on the
evening of 25 April, and we worked until, I think, about nine,
half-past nine, that evening on this modified cull policy, and
at ten o'clock that evening, to my complete surprise, Phoenix
emerged on the television. And the next morning it was in the
papers and people were surmising that this change in cull policy
had been directed by Phoenix.
19. I do not think this Committee is suggesting
that. This Committee accepts, I am sure, that Phoenix was a happy
(Professor King) An unhappy coincidence.