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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. One would perhaps argue that on a precautionary basis you should, at least for an interval of, say, 7-14 days, allow for an assessment of where the virus had got to, but I hesitate to criticise. It is very easy to do so with hindsight and you are quite right that farmers were immediately anxious about the introduction of movement restrictions when they did come in, and did not necessarily say, "Yes, that is necessary".
  (Mr Scudamore) And even in the Northumberland report it says control areas were localised and should only be used in exceptional circumstances. In retrospect this was a very exceptional circumstance.

David Taylor

  81. In relation to livestock movements, to take you back to the question of markets, you said that the 20-day standstill would be helpful in controlling the flow of the disease, but the proposal under consultation at the moment does exclude markets, does it not? Would the inclusion of a requirement where an animal has gone to market that it cannot go for a further 21 days to any other market, in your view, be helpful as well in controlling the flow of disease?
  (Mr Scudamore) Any system where animals mix, meet and then go on to mix and meet with others poses a risk and, therefore, if animals are going into markets and are mixing and then leaving that market and going into another market, as happened in Hexham, where they went on to Longtown, that does pose a potential risk. If we have a 21-day standstill on the animals, however, they would have left the market in Hexham and then had a 21-day standstill, so we need to look at where animals are moving and where a 21-day standstill would stop the disease spreading, but markets do pose an additional risk where animals are mixing together and then moving on. Equally we need to make sure that, if animals go into markets, they do not pick the disease up from the market itself so that comes back to the cleaning and disinfection that markets go through which must be strictly enforced.

  82. So there is a feeling that this would be helpful?
  (Mr Scudamore) It would be. Any restrictions on animals mixings and moving would be helpful. Interestingly we issued some booklets yesterday for farmers on restocking advice and one of those is that they should know where the animals come from and try and buy them direct to minimise bringing in other diseases.

Mr Drew

  83. I mentioned earlier about asking the wrong questions in terms of the Devon inquiry. Are you not personally staggered by the number of illegal movements on the one hand and, secondly, how do you deal with the dealers who, in this particular outbreak, are putting illegal movements into practice?
  (Mr Scudamore) On illegal movements, there are two issues: One is movement before the outbreak occurred where they were all legal—people were allowed to move animals and there were no restrictions. On the question of illegal movement during the outbreak, I do not have any figures on what has been happening and what goes on. The enforcement authorities who enforce the legislation in different counties have different statistics but I do not have those with me on the question of illegal movements and I am not sure whether there are huge numbers of illegal movements. I do not think there are.

  84. I think it would be useful if that could come before the Select Committee. I know one of the difficulties is that is held locally and it would be useful if it was held nationally in terms of what we now ascertain the degree of the problem was. What about the dealers?
  (Mr Scudamore) The question about dealers comes back to the 21-day rule. We come back to the fact that if animals are bought, mixed and then sold on, every time that transaction takes place from a veterinary point of view there is a potential for disease spread and if animals are bought, mixed with other animals and then sold on, there is a potential that disease can spread from one animal to another. I think on the whole question of marketing and dealers these are issues really for the lessons learnt inquiries to use the information we are building up on the epidemiology to try and decide what are the best mechanisms for controlling disease, but there is no doubt that mixing animals in large numbers and redistributing them can spread disease very quickly, as has happened.


  85. Can I come to the various movement orders and control, because what this epidemic has seen is a history of schemes being devised in numbers and then ten days later the poor infantry in North Yorkshire or Gloucestershire or whatever still do not have any instructions on how to carry them out. In most cases we had trading standards officers, most recently we had the autumn movements and the DEFRA computers. In North Yorkshire, for example, we had authorisations being made which should not; we had one which was refused which should have been made; we had the trading standards people going absolutely spare at the impossibility of getting the DEFRA computer making any form of sense at all; we had farmers going spare because they could not get through to the trading standards because they could not get through to DEFRA, and the whole thing became a mixture between a farce and a nightmare. What are we going to do to make sure this chain of command is improved so that people on the ground can carry out instructions rapidly and are we now in a position for the autumn movements to go ahead effectively, and has DEFRA sorted out its rocket science?
  (Mr Scudamore) You are being very hard on DEFRA in all of this. We have stated quite clearly in the stakeholder meetings that we have had regularly that this would be very difficult; that there would be backlogs, delays, lots of people wanting to move animals, and people's expectations needed to be held in check. They could not just ring up, get a licence and move. The first issue is we have made it clear to the industry that this autumn was not normal and that there would not be normal movements; there would be problems and their expectations of normal movements could not be met. Secondly, we have developed a licensing system and a computer system from scratch in virtually three months, and whilst you might criticise the system and I am sure farmers are not happy with it, the actual fact that we have created a system that is working is a big tribute to our computer specialists and the people putting it in place, and since the beginning of this licensing system over 800,000 sheep have been licensed, 600,000 pigs and I do not know how many cattle. It is a new system; it has had glitches—we accept that. I think there have been two problems. One is that farmers' expectations have far outweighed what we ever said it could deliver and in fact it is now delivering well I believe into most areas and, secondly, it is a brand new computer system that is licensing movements and it has had glitches and problems. The final difficulty we have had is if we just said animals could move from A to B the system could work, but what we have said is animals can sometimes go from A to B, they can sometimes go to C, they might be able to move within B, and as the system has developed and we have relaxed the movement controls we have had a more and more complex system which has had to be built into the computer programme, so all those factors together have meant that we have had serious difficulties and so have farmers with the autumn movement licensing system, but I hope it is now up and running and the backlogs and problems are being resolved.

  86. But you do appreciate, I am sure, the position of farmers at the top of a hill, for example, who have livestock stuck, they cannot move, they are not earning anything. They are not applying for normal movements; they are applying for exceptional movements under the scheme which they have been informed about exists for their benefit and the sheer sense of frustration and almost desperation is palpable really. They have found even that very restricted movement is so difficult to get to work and if you want to get it under a welfare scheme you have to wait for ages before you can get on to the scheme. It is almost as if there is a grudgingness built into the technology.
  (Mr Hathaway) Part of the difficulty is that the disease eradication picture changes day-by-day and the veterinary and scientific advice therefore on what is the safe movement of animals reflects that changing situation, so the restrictions on movement have to be proportionate to the disease risk. The autumn movement system was designed to allow the maximum number of movements we could consistent with not seeing a big risk of resurgence of the disease from the increased volume of movements. We could have introduced a very simple system which would probably have been more restrictive but what we have tried to do is, as veterinary and scientific advice has advanced with the state of the outbreak, the movements have become more and more relaxed to reflect that, so they are still proportionate to the remaining problem. This does mean that the system is complicated; it changes; and does require changes to the computer system. We have tried to impose discipline within DEFRA so we are not in a position where we announce relaxations that the computer system is not in a position to deliver within a reasonable timeframe. I think we have now got to a position where we can say that we have done that.

  87. Can you give us an end date for serological testing? You said in previous evidence that we did not just have to be disease free but virus free, and you emphasised how important it is for blood testing to be able to declare areas free of the disease. Can you give us a date when, short of there being obvious new problems arising, you expect that process to be finished and when the light at the end of the tunnel will become more pervasive?
  (Mr Scudamore) I cannot give you an end date. What I can try and give you is the criteria on which we would base an end date. The first part is we would want no disease for three months which would fit with international requirements. Secondly, we want all the counties which are on one of the maps in the free category of county. Thirdly, we would want to have completed all the serological testing in the protection zones and the surveillance zones and in those counties where we think there is an additional risk, such as the South Powys and the Devon area, which we are getting on very well with. When we have completed that, in January we will need to take a hard long look at the serological results we have and then have to evaluate what we have found. The question then is whether we are in a position to say we are virus free, and I cannot say at the moment what we will be able to say. What I can say is we have done over two million blood tests now, and I should say that the laboratories delivering that have done a tremendous amount. They have gone from 400 tests when we started and we now do 180,000 a week and we have done two million tests. The evidence is quite clear from those tests that in the protection zone we have 29 positive flocks out of 9000 and in the surveillance zone about 7 positive flocks so we do not have a major problem of endemic disease in sheep in this country, but we still have to keep doing the tests to make sure we have not got any virus. I think the end date I can give you is that in January we will take a long hard look at where we are, what we have done and what serology we have done, and between now and then we will be taking into account the results of the serology and trying to define whether we need to do any more in February or March. At the same time we are working with the European Union to get exports moving. We can already export pig meat; we can export beef from the counties that have never had disease, and we will be continuing with the European Union to try and get exports moving anyway in the interim period.

  88. So the three month countdown starts from that January date?
  (Mr Scudamore) No. It starts from the last case which we confirmed which is 30 September at the moment, and all the serology we are doing. So in mid-January we should have had the three months if we get no more cases, we should have completed most of the serology for the protection zones, surveillance zones and general surveillance, and we should hopefully have had most counties in the clear category. We then have to look at what evidence we have, because we then have to present a case to the World Health Organisation in Paris for them to ratify that we are free of disease.

Diana Organ

  89. The policy that went on through the foot and mouth disease is that scientists gave advice to ministers and ministers then made decisions about policy that needed to be communicated and hopefully convince farmers and people in the rural areas that this was the line to take. Could you tell me how much influence on the advice that scientists gave to Government was from the fact that the NFU made it quite clear that they would not accept vaccination in the early stages: they wanted eradication of the disease?
  (Mr Scudamore) The Government got its advice in a number of different ways, in fact. The first one was that we had a stakeholder meeting which involved all those with an interest in farming and retail and other industries and they were held weekly, and when we were discussing changes to policy and recommending different options, we discussed those with them.

  90. I am talking about at the very beginning when the decision of what policy was taken, before the stakeholder meetings were set up. How much were the scientists that were giving advice to ministers aware of the particular line that the NFU wanted to take when we were talking about when to bring in movement stoppages, that we would not use vaccination, we would use a culling policy, right at the very beginning?
  (Mr Scudamore) When the outbreak started on 20 February, the national policy, which is the same as the EU policy, was that if we had an outbreak of the foot and mouth disease it would be controlled by culling. The national policy was if there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, we would identify, restrict the farm, cull the farm out, remove all the dangerous contact farms. That was the national policy at the time and that was based on experiences from 1967 and on European Union discussions, so the policy was quite clear when we started the outbreak on 20 February.

  91. For instance, I see that the Royal Society inquiry is taking evidence from Professor Fred Brown of the US Department of Agriculture Plum Island Animal Disease Centre and anybody looking at the Internet over the foot and mouth disease time will know that Fred Brown had a completely different view about the policy that should have been taken on this. How much did we take that kind of advice? Concerning vaccination in particular his line was very different.
  (Mr Scudamore) We took advice from a range of scientists. In fact, very early on in the outbreak I commissioned some work from the FAO in Rome where there is a European Union foot and mouth disease group on the use of the vaccine and when it could be applied. We took advice from the World Reference Laboratory at Pirbright which is where Fred Brown had previously worked so we took advice from the experts there and latterly we took advice from the science group, so we were taking advice from a range of experts on vaccination.

  92. Farmers and local people in the rural areas were very much affected by the policies that were taken and obviously at times did not have complete trust in the advice that scientists or advisers were giving to ministers. How much has there been continual damage to that due to the fact that the IAH study on BSE and the UK sheep population in the early 1990s has been obviously flawed and not a robust scientific inquiry? How much has that affected future public trust in taking what scientists say as being good advice to ministers, whether it is on food safety, on animal health issues, on farming policy generally? Are people going to accept it now?
  (Mr Scudamore) There are two questions there. If I can answer the first on vaccination and scientific advice, what is quite apparent is that there are lots of differing views and resolving those is one of the reasons we, with the other countries, have got this FMD conference in December. So there is considerable difference of opinion amongst vets, scientists and all sorts of people on whether you should or should not vaccinate, and that will I hope be discussed at this conference to get some resolution as to whether one does or does not, because it is a very complex subject and there is no straightforward easy answer. You cannot just have a rule which says, "You will do this in certain circumstances". I think one issue is that vaccination is an issue that needs a lot of discussion and investigation, both on the science and on the practical reality of vaccinating and the impact of vaccinating. On the question of science, it is unfortunate that one mistake in an experiment is giving the impression that British science is flawed which I certainly do not believe. What happened was that this experiment was conducted in collecting brains from 3000 sheep in 1990-1992. The experiment that was set up to be done was completed: it was then decided to use the material later on for another experiment, and what we need to do is await the audit results which are in place to find out what happened and then I think learn the lessons from that. One could well be that, if you set up one experiment with a series of protocols, you need to look to see whether you can use that material for another experiment if the protocols from the first do not meet the requirements of the second one. So I think there are lots of lessons to learn from this case and I think the audit will hopefully show us what happened and what needs to be done.

  93. Obviously there are problems about convincing the public that scientists do not just make it up as they go along. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and very few of us have that great gift, but let's say we were starting today with what looked like the beginning of another terrible outbreak of foot and mouth spreading in pigs. Would you give the same scientific advice to ministers absolutely that you gave before? Do you think it would be possible to do that and to be robust about it?
  (Mr Scudamore) The difficulty we face is what is our national policy. That is where there has to be debate. At the moment national policy is to identify disease, remove the animals and remove contact animals that have been exposed.

  94. So as a vet you think that is the best policy?
  (Mr Scudamore) I will come on to that in a moment. The Taiwanese had an outbreak in pigs and they removed large numbers of pigs. They then changed their policy to vaccination so they now vaccinate their pigs and they still have disease, so they have no exports and they vaccinate their pigs as an on-going commitment which is expensive and does not get rid of the disease. The difficulty we faced all along with this is what would be the trigger factors to vaccinate and what would vaccination achieve. I think I said at the last select committee that it depends on the national policy. If it is to eradicate disease then you might use vaccination in certain circumstances to assist in doing that. If your policy is to live with the disease, then you move into the routine vaccination but one of the things I hope that comes out of the Royal Society is that we need to look at vaccines to see whether we can get different but better vaccines, whether we can identify infected versus vaccinated animals more effectively and whether there is a way in which vaccination can be used. Nobody in the veterinary profession likes to kill animals—it is not what we are trained to do—but if we are trying to eradicate a disease then at the end of that eradication process you have to remove the infected animals.

  95. But as a vet do you think the policy is wrong to cull?
  (Mr Scudamore) I think the policy to eradicate the disease has to have culling and I think as it stands at the moment we would wish to eradicate the disease and we have done that—so far. We still do not know whether we have virus in the country. My view is we should eradicate the disease by culling but we do need to look at whether newer and better vaccines have a part to play in that and whether we can eradicate the disease using those vaccines.

  Chairman: We are going to move on to the question of vaccine now because at various times over the last few months officials and ministers have hinted that they were tempted by vaccination and have recommended it, never to have seen it again, so we would really like to nail this down a little bit.

Mr Martlew

  96. I was very interested in what Mr Scudamore has just said. He seems to have learned no lessons from the cull. The reality is that the damage done to the economy beyond what MAFF was responsible for at the time was so great that to close the footpaths and have the cull again would not be acceptable in Cumbria. Coming back to the question of ministers being informed, it is obvious to me as the MP for Carlisle that in the early stages, somewhere along the line, MAFF were not telling the ministers, the seriousness of the problem in Cumbria and it was only when Joyce Quin, the minister, came to see for herself that they realised the problem. I would like your comments on that. Moving on to the question of vaccination, at the moment we have a policy that presumes that foot and mouth is introduced accidentally into the country, and I accept that that is what has happened on the last case. I think the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee was asked whether it was bioterrorism and I am sure it was not, but what would we do if somebody deliberately intended to introduce foot and mouth into this country in a number of sites? Surely the only option in the future will be vaccination?
  (Mr Scudamore) There are a whole lot of questions there. The question on vaccination is why are you vaccinating. If your concern is that foot and mouth would be introduced, one option is to vaccinate the whole of the national flock and the national pig population routinely. The question then arises what do you vaccinate against. I remember working abroad when we vaccinated against one strain of FMD virus, the South African strain, and all the animals went down with foot and mouth and we found we had a slightly different strain. The first problem is, if you are going to vaccinate routinely in the country, the first difficulty is what you vaccinate against because there are seven strains and within each of those strains there are large numbers of other strains, and you do not get cross immunity, so the problem we would face is you might decide to vaccinate against the FMD that we have at the moment, but the introduction might be an entirely different strain which would be completely pointless because the animals could go down with the disease. So on prophylactic, national vaccination the difficulty is deciding what to vaccinate against. Secondly, vaccination is not very effective with foot and mouth disease in terms of pigs in particular, because to be effective you have to have an immune population, and the pig population changes so rapidly with the number of pigs being born and the type of industry, that you would end up with susceptible animals, infected animals and incubating animals and immune animals—a whole range of animals—so vaccinating in that circumstance means you would actually have to live with the disease. If you are going to do that, there are implications beyond purely veterinary issues, so the question is do you wish to trade and how. If you are going to export beef, are you going to mature and debone it? If you are going to export pig meat, would you be allowed to? I think whilst we might have veterinary views, the whole issue on vaccination and the disease is a much broader issue, as you say. It is a rural issue, it is a trade issue, an economic issue. All these issues need to be brought together so we have a nationally agreed policy.

  97. Obviously they vaccinate in Taiwan because the scale of the problem would be massive. To get rid of the pig population in Taiwan would be a task that they decided not to do so it actually works to an extent there. I am just concerned that you seem to think that the policy we have had is a success, because what we have been through over the last six months cannot be classed as a success?
  (Mr Scudamore) I certainly do not think the policy is a success. What we have done is we have eliminated the disease and we are still checking that we have eliminated the virus. In doing that we have killed large numbers of animals.

  98. I get the impression that, if it happened again, you would be recommending the same policy. Is that correct?
  (Mr Scudamore) I think what I am trying to say is there are inquiries which will be looking at lessons learnt; there is debate in Europe in December; and we cannot determine our own veterinary policy. There are so many other issues involved and we have to have a discussion and a debate on what is required in Europe in terms of controlling foot and mouth disease. Is it that we eradicate it, or do we live with it, or work out different ways of handling it? But I agree that the impact on the rural economy has been tremendous, so that needs to come into the equation.


  99. There were moments over the last six months when you have said that you were ready to recommend vaccination for a specific purpose and Professor King has said the same. Could you clarify for us now what were those moments? What were the particular circumstances which at that time led you to say to ministers, "You may wish to undertake a programme of vaccination"?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes. There were two different issues. One was where we recommended to ministers to vaccinate and the second one was where we did contingency planning in case we wished to recommend to ministers to vaccinate. So the first one is where we formally recommended that we should vaccinate in north Cumbria and the basis of that recommendation was, very early on in the disease, we did not know what the situation was in sheep because we had no serological method of going out and doing large scale testing. It was our belief that there were large numbers of sheep in Cumbria which had been infected as a result of movements from Longtown market into the Solway Firth area and other areas. We were concerned with the escalation of cases in north Cumbria that when the cattle were turned out in the spring and came into contact with those sheep they would go down with the disease, and therefore we recommended that we should vaccinate cattle in north Cumbria, first of all, to prevent them going down with disease if they came into contact with sheep and, secondly, to save cattle. If the animals were vaccinated then we negotiated in Brussels an arrangement where they did not have to be killed, unlike the Dutch who did kill them. The arrangement we negotiated in Brussels was that we could vaccinate the cattle in Cumbria; we had to keep a record of their ear tags; we had to take their passports off so they could be stamped as vaccinated, and any movement of milk or meat out of Cumbria had to meet certain requirements. So the milk leaving Cumbria had to be pasteurised in a certain way and animals going for the slaughter from Cumbria had to be slaughtered in dedicated abattoirs, the meat had to be deboned, and it had to be matured as it would from any other country with foot and mouth disease which was vaccinating. So that was what was negotiated and that was what was recommended. We put in place the contingency plan to do that using ADAS and setting up about 150 teams that could go through Cumbria vaccinating the cattle. There were disadvantages to doing that in as much as animals incubating the disease would have continued to get the disease and the vaccination teams moving through the county always posed a potential risk of taking disease with them. So if they were on farm where the animals were incubating disease and then they vaccinated, disinfected and then went to another farm, there was always a risk they could take the disease with them to the next farm. That was the recommendation we made to ministers, therefore—to vaccinate those cattle in Cumbria. Regarding the second issue, working up contingency plans to decide whether we would vaccinate or recommend vaccination, we did that in about seven other areas. So we developed a possible plan for dealing with the Settle/Clitheroe area because we were concerned that, if the disease moved down from Clitheroe into north east Lancashire, there were a lot of very big dairy herds and we were looking at the possibility of vaccinating those herds. We looked at vaccination in Humberside, as I mentioned at the last Select Committee. We looked at the possibility of vaccinating on the Brecon Beacons in sheep. We looked at a number of other possibilities in Leicestershire—when we had the two slaughter on suspicion cases in Leicestershire recently we contemplated the possibility of a ring vaccination around those that had been confirmed—and we looked at various other options of vaccination. In all of those cases the trigger factor to initiate the vaccination did not exist so we did not vaccinate. As it turns out we did not need to because the areas we were looking to vaccinate did not actually get any disease.

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