Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 20-39)

Lynne Jones

  20. What you have described is the importance of those giving the scientific advice being aware of the practicalities down on the farm, as it were. With the BSE crisis, the recommendation was that meat and bone-meal should not used, and yet nobody seemed to be aware of the stocks that were on the farms. With this foot and mouth, we have the problem that MAFF did not seem to be aware of the extent of sheep movements. Do you think there is a problem there of liaison between the scientists giving the advice and perhaps the people out on the ground, who are doing the more routine work in relation to farms, or whatever the subject is, and is that something that needs to be put right?
  (Professor King) The epidemiologists will all explain to you that this epidemic provided them with the most fantastic data, and that data, which is not perfect, but compared with other epidemics of this kind it was quite remarkable, was gathered by MAFF in the early phase of the epidemic, and this is the tracing I was referring to earlier on, the tracing which goes back to Heddon-on-the-Wall and then forward through the epidemic. And, quite early on, MAFF, through the tracing and through sales of sheep, particularly from Longtown, realised that this amount of movement had occurred.

  21. But my point is that should not MAFF have been aware that this amount of movement was taking place, routinely, across the country, and actually had some foresight into the potential risks of this activity; and that is what really worries me about this?
  (Professor King) Yes, but, I am not sure I should say this, it could be that half of the sheep movement that occurred was not recorded. It is apparent, from the way the outbreak developed, there was some borrowing of sheep that was occurring.

  Chairman: We know what you mean. We will leave that there.

Dr Turner

  22. Yes, that is a nice euphemism. How have you set about ensuring that the Government has had the best range of scientific advice available to tackle this problem, and what disciplines have you involved, other than epidemiology, and what sources of advice, whether government departments, academic departments, and whatever, have you brought into this?
  (Professor King) The group has been growing as time has moved on from that initial state. So, initially, we had epidemiologists drawn from MAFF (John Wilesmith), from Imperial College, from Cambridge, from Edinburgh and also there is a group from Oxford; four of those groups have been modelling the epidemic, from, I think, about 8 March they started. We also brought in the experts from the Pirbright Animal Health Institute, Alex Donaldson and Paul Kitching; we brought in modellers from MoD and DERA. And the reason for bringing in those modellers was that they were modelling the handling of the epidemic, so this is, for example, dealing with the carcasses, dealing with the disposal of animals; and it was quite clear that any modelling that we did, and put advice forward on the basis of, ought to go hand in hand with this modelling, so that we would put forward realistic scenarios. Amongst our group are four people who have practised as vets, and we now have someone who is not a virologist but is a practising vet from Devon; we brought in, for example, Gareth Davies, who is a retired vet and is now a consultant to MAFF on this epidemic. And, in addition, using the telephone reasonably widely, I spoke to a large number of people round the world, to discuss who the experts were in the UK and also to try to get further information.

  23. To what extent were you helped by the lessons learned from the 1967 outbreak?
  (Professor King) Inevitably, it was important that we had, within our team, epidemiologists who had modelled the 1967 outbreak; the Imperial College team, in particular, had just published, I think in 1999, a paper on that outbreak, and so the lessons drawn from that were brought into the committee.

  24. This is a supplementary, Chair. Can I ask you to comment? I do not normally, in this Committee, refer to Private Eye, but there is what appears to be a fairly scurrilous accusation here, from `Even Newer Muckspreader' to the effect that there was some malfeasance in the reporting of statistics of numbers of daily outbreaks. I do not know if you have seen this?
  (Professor King) No.

  25. Do you want to see it? I do not take it that seriously, but if you would like to comment on that. And can you assure us that the reporting of the statistical information was consistent?
  (Professor King) This says: "No 10 has co-opted Professor Roy Anderson's Imperial College computer to show the government's policies now working so brilliantly that the epidemic will come to an end on precisely 7 June." I have been asked, on several occasions, at these media briefings, about, "What are you predicting for 7 June?" and I see the question as one that I have very little sympathy for, because I have been at great pains to give forward objective scientific advice, and I believe the whole committee has done that. The personalising of it, through Professor Roy Anderson, is one of the absurd games that the media has played with this. Roy Anderson has been a good team player within that large committee of 16, 17 people, and we have all worked extremely hard, Chairman, the whole team, to try to do our best, in terms of the scientific input we could make, to bring it under control with the minimum number of animals killed. The timescale we thought was less important than the number of animals killed.


  26. Just as a very quick question, following up Dr Turner, could you assure us that you are all working as scientists and not as politico-scientists?
  (Professor King) I can give you that absolute assurance.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

Dr Turner

  27. Did MAFF actually have any contingency plans to deal with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease?
  (Professor King) Your question I am going to take as rather like Dr Jones's previous question. My answer is, I do not know, and nor have I asked.

  28. Right; but do you have the impression that they had sufficient in-house skills, in either veterinary skills or scientific skills, to meet such a crisis, or any future crises? Because, fortunately, foot and mouth disease is not life-threatening to humans but it is not impossible for exotic diseases to be imported which could be highly life-threatening. Is MAFF ready to deal with these?
  (Professor King) Could I answer your question in this way. I think that, for an episode of this kind, which was a major national disaster, it is critically important, and this is really part of the Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines, for any Department to draw in scientific expertise from a wide range. I do not believe that any Department would have, in-house, all of the expertise needed to deal with an episode of this kind.

Lynne Jones

  29. But they do need the expertise to be able to identify where the gaps are; that is the crucial issue?
  (Professor King) You do; that is quite right. And I could make broad-ranging comments about science in Government Departments on this level.


  30. We are about to move to a wider area. You will not be surprised, Professor King, that we have taken up nearly half our time on foot and mouth, which probably is pretty mean, compared with the fact that you are taking up nearly all your time on foot and mouth. We are about to move now onto other subjects. But I wonder if, from the Chair, I could ask just one question that has worried me for a little while now, personally. Whenever I have a bonfire, however vicious the bonfire is or vigorous the bonfire is, there are always one or two leaves that rise from the bonfire and flutter into my next-door neighbour's garden, unburnt, untouched. I have wondered about these pyres that are burning the corpses, when bits of wool, or anything else, are just fluttering up, with virus on, that are carrying that virus around, and I wonder if you have any information on that? And when this Committee went to Porton Down, some two or three months ago, we know that there are military vehicles that can take air samples and look for bacteria or virus. Have the military vehicles that are in reserve in the event of a nerve war been used to detect whether there are viruses going through the air from these enormous pyres?
  (Professor King) The answer is that this question has been raised from quite early on, and the Pirbright team, I believe, have been gathering data. To date, no data, and I am only going from memory here, showing the presence of the virus surviving in this; but, clearly, a large sampling needs to be done before one can be at all sure of this. A small amount of virus going up in the way that you describe would be a major problem. So I think the answer is, we do not know, and it would be very useful to know the answer to that.

  31. You mean, we do not know whether the pyres could be spreading the virus across the fields of Cumbria and Devon?
  (Professor King) Let me answer that by saying it is very unlikely. The virus is killed at relatively low temperatures, so I contrast this with a prion, and this is why we do not burn cattle in pyres like this that are over five years old, a prion would survive and would get blown around. The virus, a few hot summer days would probably be enough to dampen down this epidemic very substantially, three days of 40 degrees centigrade in Greece was enough to turn off their epidemic. So the temperatures required to kill off this virus are not high, it is just over 40 degrees.

Lynne Jones

  32. You may not want to address this question, Professor King, because you said you really have not had time to think about it already, but it is whether you feel that the lessons from BSE have been learned, in the manner in which we have gone about coping with foot and mouth, and whether you think there are any lessons to be learned in the future, in relation to the operation of the scientific advisory system? If you do not want to answer it, or you can only answer it superficially, perhaps, when you do have an opportunity to think about this, you might like to let the Clerk know?
  (Professor King) I think the very quick answer to both those questions is yes. Within the FMD Science Group I have just described, I think we have operated fairly closely to the Government's own response to the Phillips Commission reports and the guidelines, and all of that was based on lessons learned from BSE.

  33. But you were not brought in until several weeks after the start; so that is not really a satisfactory answer, is it?
  (Professor King) If I move on to the second question, I think there will be very, very important lessons to be learned when we go back and analyse this epidemic, lessons to be learned about the other point you made, sheep movement, animal movement, what our approach is to the inoculation of animals, the use of vaccination, there are all sorts of important lessons to be learned once it is all over.

Mr McWalter

  34. Just further to that, really. Typically, government departments take a great number of decisions involving economists at absolutely every stage, and the Treasury gets its fingers into everything. While at the same time, just to follow through what Dr Jones was saying, it seems as if scientists, as it were, wait in the wings, not being asked for their advice, and whether it is scientists like yourself, or environmental scientists, or other people with expertise which will be extremely helpful, they are kept just kind of completely in the wings, and then when a crisis occurs then there is a real input of scientific expertise to sort of governmental-decision-making. We have asked that the scientific advisory system be revised, to make the operation of scientific advice much more part of the system. Do you agree, first of all, that that would be a change, and, secondly, that that change would be desirable?
  (Professor King) Yes, I do; again, yes to both of those. If I could just say that the current state of science and technology is such that I believe it is fair to say that we have passed through a scientific revolution, where science is now able to give us remarkably good information about very complex phenomena, and I have only to say global warming, or the human genome, you know, the complexities that scientists are now being able to deal with is quite astonishing. And, of course, this is related to information technology, the development of computers, which is enabling us to handle these vast systems of complexity, but with a tremendous degree of quantitative understanding. So this is a big breakthrough, and I do not think that the breakthrough has yet got to the point that you are asking your question about, which is being able to use that tremendous capability to assist Government and policy-makers in the best possible way. I do not think it has happened yet, and I think we are a little distance away from that. If there is one thing, if I can somehow bend this question back to foot and mouth, I think if there is one lesson I would hope to be learned from the foot and mouth it would be precisely that science can inform policy-makers, would it be a poor joke to say, on the hoof.

  35. Yes; but that is all consolidated in a document called `Guidelines 2000—Scientific Advice and Policy Making', and, presumably, you are going to be doing a report, your next report, on that, which is going to incorporate some of the foot and mouth expertise, or lessons from foot and mouth, whatever. Presumably your next report then is going to be a very radical one indeed, in terms of departing from previous nostrums about the relationship between science and Government?
  (Professor King) Actually, I think Guidelines 2000 is rather a good document, and I am not sure that I am thinking of a radical change to that. I think where change is needed is in the scientific capabilities within Government Departments. I think this is where my attention is going to be focused. I would like to see some kind of review system that is capable of picking up the real demands that ought to be placed on scientists in Government Departments, the capabilities that could be transforming the work of those Departments, and the competencies of the scientific civil servants within those Departments. I think we need detailed reviews, also we need to develop a new methodology for providing the scientific civil servants with proper motivation actually to achieve what I have just described. Probably also it means that we need more mobility of scientists; we have lost a large number of previously Government research laboratories, that have been outsourced. Chairman, just as with any industry, if you outsource all of your research and you lose also the scientists who are capable of understanding what is being done externally, you no longer know what questions you can ask and nor do you know who you can turn to, and I do think that is a problem.

  36. Would you agree that that is particularly significant in information technology, where Government commissioning systems seem to have a lamentable lack of expertise?
  (Professor King) I think it is, but also, if I can turn that around, the opportunities in information technology are there and are not being exploited, the opportunities in information management, intelligent management of information, which is a very exciting research area at the moment, are simply not being exploited.


  37. Professor King, from time to time, in this Committee, we have debated where the Office of Science and Technology should be located, whether it should be in the Cabinet Office, or DTI, or Department for Education, or wherever, but I would like to reflect at the moment not so much on where the Office of Science and Technology should be but where the Chief Scientific Adviser should be within the structure, and we know that one of your roles is to be Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister and we understand that you have a separate base in the Cabinet Office. How often do you meet the Prime Minister, and how much of your time do you spend in the Cabinet Office role?
  (Professor King) Because we are in unusual times, with the foot and mouth epidemic, the answer to the question how often do I meet the Prime Minister probably is not going to be sustainable over the coming time. But certainly I have been seeing the Prime Minister three or four times a week, at least, over the last six weeks, so it has been very frequent. I have been in and out of No.10 very frequently.

  38. But when you had the handover from Sir Robert May, he would have given you an idea how often, in normal times, you would see the Prime Minister?
  (Professor King) It would be more like once a month, Chairman.

  39. And how much of his time and your time, in your very early days, did you spend in the Cabinet Office role; is it half, or is it 20 per cent?
  (Professor King) I think really it is too early for me to judge the answer to that question. I think that the work, as it divides itself along the lines you are suggesting, Chief Scientific Adviser as against Head of the Office of Science and Technology, as I see it, is predominantly science in Government, international-related. But it is difficult to extract from that, for example, the Foresight programme and the Link programme; and, of course, I am pleased to say this, the overlap is very strong between the various parts of the work, and, of course, the science budget.

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