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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-78)



60.  I am delighted with what you have said but I want to take you back to a critical point you said right in the middle of that which is the data has to be cleaned up to some extent, because not very surprisingly—and I do not think anyone is to blame in this—it was an emergency and some of the data quality was very poor, so we need to unpick that and go back over it and say, "Hold on, what can we do to validate this and improve it and so on?" The second element is to make it publicly available. I think there has been complaint in the past certainly that DEFRA hangs on to its data and does not make it available freely within the academic community. Is that a legitimate complaint in the past and one that might act as a warning sign to us on this?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) There must be some risk of it. I would hope that with the new Chief Scientific Adviser and new Ministers at DEFRA that what we shall see when the Government comes back with its answers to these reports is proper undertakings to support research on this data, both in a technical sense to clean it up and also to make it available. The British Government does have a record for hanging on to data generally; it is not just inside DEFRA.

61.  I recognise that but one of the very strong points out of this is let's make sure this does not happen in this instance. This data needs to be properly cleaned up and made freely available. The other element you highlighted in your answer was the rush job of the modelling exercise. All of a sudden after the Prime Minister's intervention we got together these three teams of modellers and they produced a variety of ways of looking at the data as they saw it. It would clearly be sensible to have access to a library of modelling tools which could be applied to a variety of animal health disease outbreaks and which were subject to sensible academic analysis on an on-going basis and also were part of the contingency planning for any outbreaks in the future. Would you endorse that?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) Absolutely.
  (Dr Mumford) 100 per cent.
  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) What needs to be done now is to explore the potentialities of epidemiology and modelling under a variety of scenarios so if and when the next outbreak occurs the Chief Veterinary Officer has to hand a series of independent models which he or she can then use to tell him which strategy would be the best to apply.

62.  And those are constantly reviewed and subject to the normal academic tests and questioning. The other element of this of course is data quality on an on-going basis. We have already touched on one of the key elements of locating where the animals actually are because that was a constant problem during the outbreak, and Mr Allen has certainly highlighted that.

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) It is very important we do that. However, like some other members I am slightly concerned that we may go for data overload and what needs to be done is to decide what data needs to be carried on on an on-going basis. Commissioner Byrne's speech talks about individually labelled sheep—and I can see the arguments for that but there is a danger that what we will replace is clear action with a gigantic bureaucracy and I would not want our report to be categorised or characterised as a report which said we must have yet more information on an on-going basis. We are already, I suspect, over-governed.
  (Mr Black) We come back to Mr Sawford's point that these models will not work unless we understand how the virus moves.

63.  The other element which I think has been touched on already is having a network of scientific advisers across the various government departments that have to be involved in the control of an outbreak of this kind available and linked up to go at the start because—and it has been highlighted certainly in the Anderson Report and in our own report—it was very clear that this did not exist at the start, it relied a great deal on what DEFRA had at the time. DEFRA was tested and, not surprisingly, found inadequate to deal with this and then the infrastructure was put in place for sorting out who needed to be brought into play. A critical part of this is making sure that infrastructure is established now so we understand who should be talking to whom and how to produce sensible contingency plans from a scientific perspective.

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) We would agree with that. We would also concur with your views, coming at it like you have without any knowledge to start with, that much of the underlying structure of the contingency plans must be common to many kinds of disasters. If you take this particular case, which is foot and mouth and classical swine fever, there are a number of specific issues that relate to that, but the success in combatting another outbreak of these kinds of diseases will depend even more upon the underlying changes and there are two of them, first of all, to have in place a kind of contingency machinery, and there is some evidence in Scotland that that may have worked, but either way, whether it did or did not, it is certainly very sound because many of the elements are common to a variety of different type of outbreak. The other thing we have stressed a lot is this veterinary/farmer linkage because we see that as not being connected specifically to foot and mouth but part and parcel of the underpinning which will improve animal health. I will not say as a by-product of improving animal health awareness we will get better FMD cover because FMD is likely to come in but rarely, but we are after trying to push both things up.

64.  The other point I want to draw out of paragraph 9.20 of your report was in this standing committee of expertise in dealing with an outbreak, you pulled together what might be thought the usual suspects, if you like, in government departments to assist in this process but critically in the last sentence you say: "It should also contain experts from outside the government including universities and other European countries." I strongly endorse that but, again, that is not the culture we normally find within Whitehall mechanisms of saying, "We will need some external review of how we are addressing this process." Would you particularly pick out that point? I think that many of us would probably see the recommendation above that as being a consensus issue but the element which might be more difficult is the external perspective that you are drawing out there.

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I think it is very important that we have an EU input into EU issues. Our experience when we asked Dr Jorgen Westergaard to join our Committee, whose experiences were all in Brussels and Denmark, was that his contribution was probably much better than most of us. He had a perspective on the whole issue and there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that he did other than commit himself to the problems that we had. I may say en passant that Dr Westergaard was asked by the Northern Ireland Assembly to advise them on their infectious diseases. I think such people exist and all of the people concerned are big enough to stand to one side. I would have thought it is always intelligent to have people from outside the immediate Whitehall machine. Universities may reflect where we come from but I am not bothered so much about universities as outsiders.

65.  Just briefly on the future of the State Veterinary Service, if I draw attention to Table 10.2 which describes the training paths of vets, which indicates, frankly, everybody's interest in cats and dogs and not in the larger animals. What do you feel we should do about that? TV programmes tend to emphasise the sexy nature of the veterinary profession as it applies to the kind of things we keep as pets but less so to what happens in agriculture.

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I think it is a very serious problem indeed for the veterinary profession. We need without doubt a situation where we have a territorial reserve structure. These are very rare outbreaks. When they come, it is literally every person to man the pump. I am not sure that we manned the pump as well as we might have done, but we have got two vets here.
  (Professor McConnell) The State Veterinary Service has an absolutely critical role to play but its image is not good. It has an image of bureaucracy rather than one of curiosity and good science and the delivery of high quality animal health in partnership with local veterinarians, so I think there is an important job to be done there. The local veterinary practitioners we spoke to have a lot to offer the State Veterinary Service through having some contractual engagement. The problems are compelling and the problems are interesting and I quite agree with you that the perception of the public is that veterinary medicine is the delivery of hamster medicine rather than dealing with some of these complex and difficult problems in farm animals. Those are issues that need to be addressed within the veterinary schools, within the establishments, within the opportunities, for example, for further training within the State Veterinary Service.

66.  Your report highlights quite correctly that DEFRA itself (or MAFF previous to it) has shrunk back from a role of active engagement with the veterinary profession and with the training of vets and does not even put some of its own vets through training programmes which are accredited through normal mechanisms and that there needs to be a review within DEFRA of how it approaches its own service and its linkage to the academic community.

  (Professor McConnell) A very good example of that is to ask the question how many of the individuals within the State Veterinary Service get released to go and do a PhD and the answer is they get one day a year. If you can do a PhD in one day a year, good luck to you but I have never heard of it.

67.  Lastly, because I know our Chairman has a pressing personal engagement to come, you highlight that one of the difficulties has been the declining MAFF and DEFRA research budget and you have identified the need for 250 million investment over the next 10 years. I do not know how you arrived at that figure. Is it one of these out-of-the-air jobs or has someone said, "That seems a large sum and worth shooting for", or was it itemised in some way?

  (Professor McConnell) Let me give you an example from the Wellcome Trust which invests heavily in human disease research. They spend approximately 125 million per year on research programmes. Now we are dealing with animal health disease problems—

68.  For clarity, does 250 million over 10 years mean 25 million a year?

  (Professor McConnell) Yes. So that is equivalent to the funding of one research grant support in the Wellcome Trust.

69.  I was going to say that is not going to go a long way.

  (Professor McConnell) If you compare that to what we have seen in the past, there is a real issue here that this research money has to be directed to work on the target species.

70.  Who should manage that sort of budget?

  (Professor McConnell) That is why we say in this report there is a strong need for a national strategic authority that brings together the different stakeholders.

71.  So not DEFRA?

  (Professor McConnell) The problem for veterinary medicine is that it has fallen between the cracks of the different stakeholders.

72.  So not DEFRA?

  (Professor McConnell) DEFRA should be a player.

73.  A player but not the lead role?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) We are suggesting that we need a single overarching national strategy for dealing with animal disease research and development. Below that we would like to see a virtual (because we do not think we can knock the organisations together) centre for animal disease research which carries out that strategy, and that centre should be fed by the combined budgets that are currently falling into various pockets and that body should be the one which is responsible and accountable for delivering the strategy coming from above. What we have at the moment, sir, is utter fragmentation.

74.  Who writes the strategy?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) There is no strategy at the moment.

75.  Who do you think should?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I think the board of experts needs to write the strategy.

76.  Is this a job for the Prime Minister because I note you give him some work in this?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) It should be perfectly possible and in many areas it already exists. Not in animal disease research and development but in many other areas research scientists can do this and I think in some ways the kind of committee we have which brought together practitioners and scientists meant that it ended up as a sensible strategy.

77.  You pick out what I described a couple of years back as a "radar screen" research approach of looking at future risks by examining what is happening in the rest of the world and trying to understand what those are and anticipate the requirements. A lot of our research tends to be after the fact so we have a problem with TSEs and you mention in the report we throw a lot of money at it. What does not tend to happen is people to say, "Hold on, what is the next thing coming that may well hit us?" You mention Blue Tongue and it sounds horrible but I think most of us have never heard of it.

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) There is one person working on Blue Tongue in the United Kingdom.

78.  That gives you perhaps an indication of where the radar screen needs to be developed.

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) Exactly. If I may say in ending this, one of the important things to grasp is that some of these things have characteristics that do not necessarily fit the combative, Anglo-Saxon political machine at work. They are either very long-term issues—Blue Tongue may or may not come so it is quite hard to justify—or, second, it is the foot and mouth kind of problem where you do not have it for a generation and then you get an absolute crisis and no society has found a good way of handling those two sorts of things. If we have even pressure over time most of us can work strategies out but I think it is going to be very important that this disease strategy which is characterised by those two features of long-term potential risk which we do not know will occur and these cataclysmic crises, needs to be taken into account.
  (Dr Mumford) And it needs a multi-disciplinary approach.
  (Professor McConnell) Nobody can predict where the next disease problem is coming from. If you have a strong, proactive, precautionary animal disease research base which is not blind to new science (because science moves on all the time) you can feed that information into your strategies on a recurrent and daily basis. If you do that forewarned is as good as being forearmed.

  Chairman: Professor Follett, you mentioned a need for a strategic board to commission and to co-ordinate research. I am wondering what the Follett Commission's next task is. I am not sure if you have been decommissioned from DEFRA now you have given them your report or whether DEFRA is going to submit its strategies to you for some sort of examination. Anyhow, you have certainly given us some ideas. Thank you very much for coming today. It has been a very helpful and fruitful session. You have had a very good team with you. We have had a really good conversation which is really what select committees ought to be about most of the time. It has been very helpful to us. We will be seeing the Secretary of State to draw together all three of those reports so we have got some very valuable material we will want to challenge her with, to be honest, and to see where the Government is going. You have been very frank with us and we are extremely grateful to all of you for coming in front of us. No doubt we will see you again on other occasions. We like to keep in contact with people and with reports and not just consign them to the history books and so we may well want to re-visit this at some stage when we know what the shape of the strategy is. Thank you very much for coming on this occasion.


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