Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Dr Anderson, who was the chairman of the Inquiry and Mr Alun Evans, who was the secretary to the Inquiry, welcome, and thank you for coming along today. I would just like to make it clear that you wrote the report, you did not handle the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, so I will ask my colleagues to remember we are not here to prosecute you, we are here to have a conversation about your report. If I may just make one preliminary point, obviously people's views on the report will differ but I thought in terms of a very clear, crisp, legible, almost journalistic account, it was an extremely good report; it was a readable report. I would like to congratulate you at least on that.

  (Dr Anderson) Thank you.

  2. So much of the time with these things you pick them up with dread and find them jolly hard going but actually this was a pretty easy read and I think you need to be commended on that, and the more government documents which can easily be read the better, though that will remove some of the mystique no doubt from this particular profession. Dr Anderson, we want to ask you a series of questions and in a minute I want to come to the way the inquiry was conducted, to get it out of the way, but I would like to start with one or two more general questions. Margaret Beckett made a statement in the House of Commons yesterday. I do not know whether you have had the opportunity to read the transcript of that or are aware of what she said?
  (Dr Anderson) I have done.

  3. The word which occurred very frequently during the course of that statement was the word "hindsight", and she implied a significant number of your comments were informed by hindsight. Would you like to say for the Committee to what extent you think that is a true reflection and how many of your recommendations and observations you believe you would stand up and defend despite that remark?
  (Dr Anderson) From the outset of our inquiry I have recognised the dangers of applying hindsight, and as a result of that recognition have tried meticulously throughout our work and throughout the preparation and writing of this document to avoid falling into that trap. As far as I can see and as far as I believe, we have avoided it, and I believe that the observations made and the recommendations made—at least it was my intention—could have been determined a priori, not with hindsight.

  4. Can I come to one of those issues, which is the contingency plan. As I read your report, it seemed to me you were isolating a number of important issues, and I summed those up in my own notes as planning, speed of response, intelligence, mobilisation and trust, as sort of chapter headings. The Secretary of State in response to your criticisms of the contingency plan said, "Hang on, we set up a plan in the light of the criteria set down by the European Union, they said it was a jolly good plan and it is really not reasonable to criticise us because actually we have the best plan in Europe." I do not think I am necessarily over-summarising. You said it simply was not adequate. Do you think that criticism is justified, or would you say that even given the framework set out by Europe there should have been nonetheless a more detailed plan?
  (Dr Anderson) I am of course aware of the European dimension and of the remarks which have been made at the European level and the way Europe sets out its requirements for contingency planning, and I am also aware that that supports the use of the ten case example. I would add, however, it is not a very satisfactory practice to hide behind, the requirements of a bureaucracy in Brussels, I do not think that in itself is right. Secondly, I would add that the Commission's own worst case scenario is for 150 cases in an outbreak, and in a very general way they say that for Europe-wide we would consider the possibility over ten years of 13 such events, worst case scenario 150. Of course, this outbreak went very much further than 150, and I would like to make two observations on that. The first is that if we look at the history of our own country, the period from 1922 to 1924, 1952, 1967, in our own country we have in our experience these examples where foot and mouth disease resulted in one or two or several thousand cases. The virus for foot and mouth disease we all know is a dangerous one, a highly infectious one and, if I may use layman's language, has the capacity to bite; not often, rarely even, perhaps only once every 20 or 30 years, but it has that capacity, and it has done in our country several times during the 20th century. So 150, worst case, and our own experience over the decades very much worse than that. If I dwell on the 150 worst case, and I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing to dwell on, I believe that it was early on demonstrated, long before we were dealing with the 1,000 cases, 2,000 cases which in the end were so overwhelming, long before that, in the early days in week one or two while still less than 150 cases were present, a number of systems had shown their weaknesses and some had failed.

  5. The Government was clearly stung by your characterisation of the situation at one point during this crisis as "panic". Do you still stand by the term "panic"?
  (Dr Anderson) Certainly. What I found, if one comes out from the centre of decision making and moves into the field around the regions and into those areas where people were fighting the real fight on the ground, that is where I was exposed mostly to that comment and that observation. As you know, and we may come to it in a minute when we talk about some of the methods of our inquiry, we of course visited all these regions and whenever we did we met with all the officials and some junior officials who were involved in the process, and that was the source of that input and I stand by it.

  6. A final introductory question, did it surprise you that apparently the genesis of the bringing together of a group of scientists to look at what was happening and try to find a way forward was Sir John Krebs who did this informally as a sort of freelance effort and then that became more formalised? Do you think at the early stages there should have been a much greater effort to assemble a body of scientific opinion, epidemiologists, more forecasting, to try and have some idea of where this disease was going and hence what might be necessary to get in front of it rather than behind it?
  (Dr Anderson) When I discovered what you have just described, I did find it surprising, as you suggest. I obviously did not know that before the process of the inquiry and I think it is regrettable and I lay out quite a number of observations on that in the report, and we may speak on that later, and I think there are several really very important aspects of that to discuss.

Mr Jack

  7. One of the things which the Secretary of State said yesterday in her statement was this was different. She tried to explain away many of the problems by virtue of the size, the extent and the speed with which the disease spread. When you look at the mechanics of MAFF and how they responded to the unfolding disaster, what do you think were the reasons which took them so long to galvanise, to produce the speed and size and scale of response which subsequently became necessary to control and contain the disaster? It was said, for example, that until the Prime Minister became involved that there was not a sufficient degree of urgency, co-ordination and logistical expertise brought to bear. What was it that made them not see what was coming and be so far behind the game in those early weeks?
  (Dr Anderson) I think that is one of the areas where one has to say this was an epidemic with unprecedented characteristics. No one had thought of, nor could have imagined, from the very outset at least 57, as we know and perhaps more than that, separate seedings of this disease taking place, and I believe that that characteristic in itself posed an enormous challenge in the response mechanism. I want to acknowledge the scale of the challenge. Having said that, I think that the absence of purposeful application of speed and direction may have been the result, on the one hand, of lack of proper scenario thinking, preparation and rehearsal and it had not been thought through in that way, and on the other hand certainly as is described in some detail in the report here, the lack of information. If a command structure at a central place is directing the allocation of responses and resources in a very complex environment—and I draw a military analogy here as if people are fighting a military campaign—the generals in the centre are absolutely beholden to the quality of the information which comes in. I do believe there were significant failings in the information flow and that may also have contributed to it.

  8. I remember when it started having the date of 10 March firmly embedded in my mind, because that was the date upon which all the infected animals which had got foot and mouth were supposed to emerge and then there was the three week period and incubation of the disease. I remember being almost quite surprised that suddenly there were a lot more cases popping up and that the scenario which had been explained, that it would all be sorted out by 10 March, did not happen, that then after that we were still running around desperately trying to get our act together to respond to it. That sent a signal certainly to me that there was something different about this, either the scope or scale, but the centre did not seem to respond, even taking into account your point about lack of information. Was there a reason for that?
  (Dr Anderson) I understand your analysis and I share the view you are expressing. Around 10 March was the time when the epidemiologist team in MAFF itself had for the first time made their own forecasts that this epidemic could run much further than had previously been stated, and at that stage the internal epidemiological forecast emerged to be between 1,000 and 2,000 cases.

Mr Simpson

  9. Dr Anderson, like the Chairman I was very impressed by your report. As a military historian I have had to look at many inquiries like the Gallipoli Inquiry and it is always fascinating to see the terms of reference and what is and what is not included. One of the things which struck many people I think was your own frustration, particularly which came out in your press conference yesterday, that despite the fact you were able to draw out from written evidence and from questioning everybody, from the Prime Minister to the men and women on the ground, there were a number of fundamental questions which you could not get answers to. If you were quoted correctly, it is said, "When pressed for a reason why many key questions remained open, Dr Anderson said, `Your frustration is nothing compared to mine. Most of the time people said "I was not present at the time a decision was made" and when I asked, "Well, where was the decision made" the answer was, "I'm not actually sure where the decision was taken". Obviously, you cannot expect in a fast-moving crisis to have the minutiae but it seems to me there were fundamental questions like, why it took 25 days to enlist the army, who decided to close the countryside, who made the contiguous cull decision. Do you think in retrospect that ministers and others might have been more forthcoming if this inquiry had been held in public? Do you think that it is just that no written decision was taken down, or finally, do you think that memories have been massaged?
  (Dr Anderson) It is not obvious to me with regard to the three particular points that you are making what would be the features and qualities of a public inquiry which would be significantly different from what I have been through. You may be able to explain that to me.


  10. Not here.
  (Dr Anderson) It is not obvious to me. Each of the points you make—one was the bringing in of the armed forces, the other was closing the countryside and footpaths and, finally, the 48 hour contiguous cull—has different characteristics so I think we would need to look at them one by one. I am happy to do that if you wish now.

Mr Simpson

  11. You may want to come back on the detail with colleagues, but it is the generic problem, that these are fundamental questions quite rightly flagged up, and what I was trying to get at was, there is no audit trail, we are into lessons learned, quite rightly, I am just wondering what you think happened.
  (Dr Anderson) What I believe is, first of all, that people now are using the memory that they have as best they can to make it clear. The underlying and I think principally important thing which is very directly addressed in the report is that there was an inadequate system of record keeping at the height of the pressure on some of these decisions. The absence of proper record keeping, at the end of the day from my point of view, is unsatisfactory and requires people to recall from their memory which in turn I think has many weaknesses and is unsatisfactory. I do not believe that any information that is material has been withheld from me. I have looked at the papers around that time, it is not that they are being held back, they do not exist on these particular questions. Different people of course, understandably perhaps, have different memories of it.

  12. Can I take the first one, why it took 25 days to enlist the army. We know that almost on day one the Ministry of Defence was alerted to the possibility that they might be required to give help and I would have thought, having done 21/2 years as a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence, they are the sort of people who on the whole keep records. Surely this was a fundamental question, military aid for a civil power, and there must have been some record, either within the Ministry of Defence or the Cabinet Office about this. Did ministers in the Ministry of Defence, having been alerted, not at some stage come back either to the Cabinet Office or to MAFF to say, "We have got things on hold, do you want us now to proceed to issue the warning orders to units, logistics", this kind of thing? What you are saying is, there is no record.
  (Dr Anderson) Perhaps I can shed some light on that. First of all, there was without doubt a proper and formal communication on day one, and there is a record of that. I think we need to remember at that stage, the early days, up until the middle of March, it was absolutely clear to everyone that MAFF was in charge, MAFF was taking the decisions, MAFF believed they had the epidemic under control; they had one absolutely critical shortage which was identified in the early days, which was vets, but other than that MAFF was coping with what needed to be done. I do believe that that translated into, I would like to suggest, a reluctance but perhaps simply a sense that additional resources from the armed forces were unnecessary. I think that is one element. I think another element is there was a failure to identify precisely what it was that the armed forces would bring, and there was a reluctance on the part of the MoD to provide labour for digging holes or slaughtering tasks, manual tasks, arguing that was not really their job, and in any event it was not really asked for. So there was a reluctance to come forward because that is not what we want to do, and there was a reluctance to ask because we are in control, we are managing on our own. I think that arises from a failure to appreciate early enough, in my view, the scale of the unfolding task and the challenges. Eventually—and that eventually emerges around the middle of March—you can start to identify a change in some of the discussions taking place and it was identified that that managerial help with the specific emphasis on logistical help would make a massive contribution. Once that debate started, and it is absolutely clear when it did start and we know exactly the weekend when the two specialist senior military officers were deployed to think through all of the issues, that is 17/18 March, by 19 March the whole process had taken place. That was the point when there was considerable challenge growing around Westminster, Whitehall, that MAFF may not in itself have the resources necessary. There is no doubt that Number10 played a role in that and at that stage the army was brought in. What the army provided, and this is now clear from all the records and in many of the commentaries from many of the brigadiers and senior officers, and we have spoken to most of them, was, as they put it, "What we provided was simply leadership, management and some logistical knowledge and skills."

  13. In this 25-day gap, what was the role of the Prime Minister? When you interviewed the Prime Minister was he out of the picture? Had he effectively just been kept informed by the Minister for Agriculture and therefore he was not aware of the scale of the problem? Did it come as a shock to him? What I am trying to get at here is the communication systems as much as anything else, because it seemed to me either the Prime Minister did not realise or was not informed of the extent of the crisis or, alternatively, he knew about it but perhaps his eye was not on the ball?
  (Dr Anderson) No, I think that in these early days, the first two weeks perhaps into the third week, and the records are absolutely clear on that, in all of the meetings and discussions which had taken place the general message was, as we discussed a moment ago, we know what is going on here, MAFF has the measure of it, we have what we need. There are repeated examples, to address your specific question, of the Prime Minister asking, "Is there anything else which MAFF needs", and the answer to that was always—apart from vets, which I do not need to refer to again, it is obvious—that there was nothing else which MAFF needs. I think what happened around that second week in March, from 10, 12, 15 March, was that that argument started to break down and it became progressively more and more clear it was not like that, and that was a very big turning point.

Mr Breed

  14. Dr Anderson, the part of the report which refers to your comments at the press conference is recorded on page 93 of the report, where it says, "It has become apparent to us that, while some policy decisions were recorded with commendable clarity, some of the most important ones taken during the outbreak were recorded in the most perfunctory way, and sometimes not at all." That must raise the suspicion with those reading that that there could have been a re-writing of some of those notes which were then of course passed to you, or of course they were then conveniently lost. Because it seems rather strange that in those particular areas where the decisions were of lesser importance they were so detailed in their note-taking, yet those which seem to be the most important and will provide the signposts in your audit trail, appear to either be not there at all or done in a way to be of very little use.
  (Dr Anderson) I do not believe that to be the case. I certainly have no hint of evidence that that is the case. I think that we have had access to all the necessary documents and original documents and it is clear the documents we have are original documents—they have little hand scribbles and all the normal things—and I just believe there were certain moments which were critical moments which you can single out, like the 48 hour contiguous cull, and these were moments when you can look back on the activity of rather high tension and some drama. There were massive pressures at the time—for whatever reason, insufficient discipline I believe—to capture with clarity the decision-making process that led to it and in particular the way that scientific advice dovetailed into that decision-making process.

  15. But it is not impossible that notes were re-written and others lost?
  (Dr Anderson) I cannot comment on that.

  16. It is not impossible?
  (Dr Anderson) Obviously nothing is impossible. I simply say I have no evidence which supports that.

Mr Drew

  17. Can I tease out the mechanics of who you saw as part of this inquiry and on what basis you saw them and the format of those meetings or whatever. On the one hand, you have been criticised, certainly in my own area of Gloucestershire, that you breezed in and saw who you wanted to see, other people who might have wanted to see you were excluded. On the other hand, there could be a criticism that you were chased, as many of us have been chased, by fringe elements who have their own agenda, who wanted to prove that agenda regardless of, if you like, the reality of what was really happening out there and should have been reported. How do you take those two extreme views and how do you respond to them?
  (Dr Anderson) Your first remarks relate to Gloucestershire, and the inquiry actually did not visit Gloucestershire except for one meeting we had there. I will explain to you what we did: we believed we would visit six of the worst affected areas looking at the clusters around the country, and we did so. The Gloucestershire zone happens to be in the order of severity number seven, but wherever we are, we have to cut off somewhere. Recognising we were in Devon, as you know, over a period of two to three days, we actually did hold one meeting in Gloucestershire to which we invited a group of people—I recall about a dozen—around the table for stakeholder discussions. That is the background to Gloucestershire.

  18. I am using Gloucestershire as an example area, I am not—
  (Dr Anderson) I am simply wanting to make it clear that the Gloucestershire example is atypical of what we did around the country, for the reasons I have explained. We have been subject to many special interest groups, fringe groups as you describe them, in many different ways both when we have been on our tours around the country physically and in the submissions which we have received in writing. That is part of the normal process, we understand that, and I believe we have taken a very objective stance and not been exposed to that kind of extreme influence.

  19. Did you actually interview any dealers?
  (Dr Anderson) We interviewed several people in and around livestock markets but I do not recall interviewing a specific farm dealer.


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