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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  200. No; so, the Veterinary Service which exists, and no-one is saying it is going to be removed, quite the contrary, and maybe that is for other reasons than those that you explain, that, in fact, is, at the moment, retaining a flaw in the process, you are saying that vets cannot really perform that role? I am not inviting you to attack vets, or all that sort of nonsense, I am just trying to explore this rather important area?
  (Professor Woolhouse) Early and accurate clinical diagnosis is a crucial element to containing the disease, but it may not be enough, because of this window the virus has for those few days before clinical signs appear; so that is the point, it may not be enough. And, in this case, it most certainly was not enough.

Mr Jack

  201. You have given us a powerful advocacy in favour of the benefits of the contiguous cull, you registered though your frustration at what you saw as vexatious challenges to the cull proceeding in certain cases. Did you, during the outbreak, once the contiguous cull was established as a method of controlling the disease, give advice to Ministers that they should take action to deal with the kind of challenges to which you referred?
  (Professor King) The advice I was giving was very focused. And I have to tell you that we have had to date 31 meetings of my FMD Science Group, that is quite a large number of meetings, since March 21; my advice was focused on how to bring this under control. So I would say, for example, the 24/48-hour, this ought to be achieved, but I never saw it as my business to take it further. Having said that, I did have many discussions with farmers, with the farming community, and I actually think I developed a good rapport with the farming community; farmers may well challenge that, but, nevertheless, they treated me politely, and I got time from them to express the background to this, because, for the very simple reason, I think what was respected was that I was in it for the same reason as they were, and that was to get rid of this epidemic.

  202. I do not want to distort, in any way, what you have said, but are you saying that, from the scientific standpoint, you did not make a recommendation to the Government that they should bring in the legal powers to take out people who wanted to challenge a contiguous cull?
  (Professor King) My advice would be, please, do whatever you can.

  203. No; the question I asked was, did you actually make a recommendation?
  (Professor King) No.

  204. You did not; so have you got any idea who did promote this idea?
  (Professor King) If my advice was read as requiring this to be done then I would perhaps be read as having promoted it. I certainly think it is a necessary thing.

  205. Just to refresh my memory, when did you actually recommend to the Government that contiguous cull must be, if you like, the course of first order to deal with the disease; when was that?
  (Professor King) I believe it was 24 March, 23, 24 March.


  206. Can I just draw your attention, Professor King; there is a Written Answer in the Hansard of 6 November, Column 146, from Elliot Morley, I am not going to ask you to respond to it now, but I would just like you to look at it. "As at 22 October a total of 7,294 Dangerous Contacts (DC) and 255 Slaughter on Suspicion (SOS) cases, which had not been recognised as Infected Premises, had laboratory tests conducted. Of these, five yielded positive results and subsequently became IPs and were recorded as such." As there is such an argument about what subsequently happened to premises which were contiguous, I find that quite difficult to stack up against some of the answers, and you may wish just to look at that question perhaps, and you may wish to write to us, clarifying that answer?
  (Professor King) I think we do not see this as contradictory

  Chairman: I do not want to go into it now. I think some clarification might be helpful. I will leave it with you, otherwise we are going to spend all day on this. We are going to move to vaccination, and Mr Martlew.

Mr Martlew

  207. At one point, I think it would be in April, when the cows were due to come out of their byres, so you recommended to Government that in Cumbria they should be vaccinated, the cattle, that was overturned by opposition by the politicians, due to opposition from the NFU and the food industry. What effect on the disease did that have in Cumbria? Would it have been over quicker, bearing in mind the problem we had in the Penrith Spur, if we had actually vaccinated, if Government had taken your advice?
  (Professor King) I am going to ask Dr Grenfell to come in, but if I could just say, the advice was given at a particular point in time, when the cattle were being overwintered still in their sheds, and we were concerned about them going out onto the pasture land, being exposed, in an area in Cumbria where there was a high degree of virus around; so the concern was to save cattle lives. But in my advice to the Prime Minister I made it absolutely clear that the cull policy was there to bring this under control and that we did not believe that this vaccination process, at that time, would be part of the process of bringing it under control; that is what I wrote in my letter to the Prime Minister. So it was to save cattle lives, rather than to prevent the spread of the epidemic; because, essentially, it was sheep that were spreading it. But perhaps I can ask Dr Grenfell to come in.
  (Dr Grenfell) The modelling that we have since done indicates that achieving that during April, vaccinating those cattle, would not have had a strong effect on the further time course and the length of the tail in Cumbria; so it would have had that protective effect but it would not have had a strong epidemiological effect. So that bears out the qualitative conclusion that was made at the time.

  208. How many cattle would you have saved; any idea?
  (Professor King) If the cattle being overwintered in sheds had not subsequently gone down with the disease in the sheds, and that is actually what happened, then we might have saved between 10,000 and 100,000 cattle; but, as it happens, many cattle went down in sheds, so it turns out that they were exposed to the disease anyway.

  209. Finally, what role do you think vaccination will play in any future outbreak? Are you still convinced that the only way to deal with this outbreak is by contiguous cull, or will vaccination play a part?
  (Professor King) One of the major advantages that we have in the way we dealt with this outbreak is in using serology to lift areas, and the net result is that we have lifted over 80 per cent of infected areas in the country so far; this means that to achieve FMD-free status we are already a long way on that route, so it will not take us that much longer to achieve FMD-free status. The reason I am saying this is that serology cannot distinguish between a vaccinated animal and an animal that has had the disease, and so we had this major weapon because we did not use vaccination; in future, I would like to see smart vaccines being developed that will enable us to distinguish a vaccinated animal from an animal that has had the disease, and then I think I would see a much bigger role for vaccination.

  210. Your total emphasis was on controlling the disease, which I accept, but you give no regard to the broader effects, the adverse effect the cull had on the economy of Cumbria, for example, where the major industry that was hit was not the agricultural industry but the tourist industry, where we would not have had that problem if we had vaccinated at first?
  (Professor King) It is a very moot point, Chairman, as to whether we would not have had that problem if we had vaccinated, given the number of points to which the disease had spread right at the beginning; and, again, Dr Grenfell has modelled this, I do not know if you want to make a comment.
  (Dr Grenfell) So we looked subsequently, in the tail of the epidemic, at some scenarios that DEFRA gave us, for example, at vaccination, ring vaccination and barrier vaccination, in the Settle area, and in our subsequent paper we have looked at vaccination as an adjunct to culling, and we do not find that it is a tremendously strong tool in that sense with current vaccines, because there is considerable extra delay for several days before the vaccine becomes effective. What we are doing now though is, and as Professor King says, in terms of the future, there are two issues that he raised there about smart vaccines which we can distinguish using serology and prompt strategies for adding vaccination to the culling. Other issues are to improve the efficacy of vaccines, and then another issue for the future is there are many strains of foot and mouth and there are questions then about whether you could really prophylactically vaccinate in the face of all the strains that are around in the world. So there are other complexities like that. What we are currently interested in and are urgently looking at is — if these technological problems are solved and a high uptake of an efficacious vaccine could be achieved, which did not have such a loss of immunity so you have to revaccinate animals, for example — what would be the optimum mixture of prophylactic vaccination and, for example, IP culling that we should do next time.

  Chairman: We have also, of course, to consider the question of consumer acceptability; in Holland, where they did vaccinate, I understand that all the milk from vaccinated cattle was taken out of the food chain, and none, in fact, went into the food chain because they concluded that there would be intense consumer resistance to its consumption. That is another factor which no doubt you may be following, what has happened because of that. We are moving on to another batch of questions now, which is about the 20-day standstill proposals and things allied with that.

Phil Sawford

  211. Listening to your comments, obviously the scientific side of this is extremely difficult, and we looked at the sheep' brains and found out they were cows' brains and made a pig's ear, by the look of it. We are left with some blunt instruments, the contiguous cull, and this suggestion on the 20-day standstill; many in the farming community claim that this will have such an adverse affect on their livelihood that a 20-day standstill will almost paralyse their work. What advice did you give, or did you give any advice, on this?
  (Professor King) If you are faced with movement of animals during an epidemic, you are actually faced with the problem of movement of the disease with the animals; incubating animals is the biggest problem that we are faced with, and if you allow movement of animals that appear to be healthy but are incubating the disease you are going to set up foci for the disease wherever you move them to. So when it came to autumn movements my committee spent a good deal of time looking at how we could allow as much movement as possible of animals but decouple it from movement of disease; that was the vital thing, to see to what extent we could prevent the moving animal from being an animal that was incubating the disease. So all of our efforts were focused at these parameters. One is to allow as much movement as possible of the animals but without allowing the movement of the disease; and that, I would say, is what the farming community wanted.
  (Professor Woolhouse) Can I just emphasise how important this is. When the national ban on livestock movements was imposed on February 23, our best estimation of already between 70 and 80 incubating foot and mouth cases spread all the way from southern Scotland to Devon; that was almost before we knew the disease was there.

  212. We saw Jim Scudamore, who gave us the sort of matrix of all of that and the links between; and I think that brings us on to the sort of continuation of livestock markets, because looking at the history of the recent case then, a lot of that, there were issues about dealers, there were issues about `out of ring' sales and traceability, but I think the key factor in there was the sheer volume of transactions moving around the different markets. Are livestock markets feasible? With this 20-day standstill, does this threaten the future; would you advise against livestock markets and have a sort of `straight to slaughter'?
  (Professor King) Can I say, we are talking about a moving target here, because it is now a considerable period since the last infected premise was reported, and as time goes on we are going to move into a situation where we can move back to normality. What we do not want is to move back to normality too quickly, we must not move into a situation which involves taking a risk.

  213. But does this threaten the future of livestock markets, and are we looking towards a `straight to slaughter' policy for all livestock?
  (Professor King) For all time.

  214. And this cuts out all the dealers; these are serious issues?
  (Professor Woolhouse) Can I turn that around, because I did not quite finish my answer, which was that I said we had 70 to 80 cases already by February 23; with hindsight, if we had imposed a national movement ban on February 20, three days earlier, our estimation is the epidemic would have been between one third and one half smaller than it actually was. You can translate that into a lot of livestock, a lot of money. So, I think, in a sense, the boot is on the other foot. The scientific case for disease control being assisted by a 20-day standstill policy is great, that would have been enormously beneficial, and I think, to some extent, it is incumbent on the industry to see if it is possible to make it work, because the disease control advantages are so great.

Mrs Shephard

  215. I think Phil has asked my question; but, the point is, you have just made the point, Professor Woolhouse, that it is incumbent upon the industry. What emerged for those people who did not understand worked was the very complex nature of the relationships between the movement of animals, the payment of subsidies, the way the market works, the way outside ring transactions carry on, which is, of course, perfectly legal, the way that transport, the way that slaughter arrangements were, all of this is immensely complex. And while I quite see that it is not up to scientists to suggest how these complexities be dealt with, and I appreciate that you make this point, you must realise that the farming community, and all those parts of the rural economy that depend upon that community, are now consumed with fear about what happened. And they will need as much solid reassurance from the scientific community as can be provided before they take up these movements, and so on, again. And I think that, while I certainly respect your point, you will need to give some thought, I think, to the kind of scientific reassurance that could be provided to get the whole thing going again, maybe not quite as it always was but with advice on suitable and sensible modifications that can be discussed and examined and looked at, and the detail of which can be examined. Everybody in the country was amazed by the complexities that were revealed by all of this, except, of course, those who were engaged in them, who naturally took them for granted because that is the way things were; things will not be like that again, I think, and I hope, quite apart from the pure scientific work that you are doing, the scientific community will be able to give some sort of advice as to the recovery?
  (Professor King) I wonder if I could just say, we are very sympathetic to the points you are making, absolutely.
  (Professor Woolhouse) Thank you for the thought, but it is obviously very helpful to us then, certainly the independent scientific community, if we can have good information on livestock demography, market movements, and so on, and that is something we obviously have to start negotiating with DEFRA.

David Taylor

  216. It is really to pursue my colleague Phil Sawford's point, because in a Movement of Farm Animals Bill that I introduced yesterday, and we know you will be familiar with the content of that, it was looking at the 20-day standstill period on a permanent basis, because the Government seem to have excluded that, under pressure, from the consultation proposals that are out in the wider community. And I just want to check yet again that that, in your view, would have slowed the growth of the disease once it became established and, indeed, shortened and made more shallow the tail of the disease, if that is the phase of the disease that we are in at the moment; if there was a permanent arrangement in place? And the other, very brief, point, Chairman, following Eric Martlew's point about vaccination, you were talking about vaccination, I guess, in the early stages of the outbreak; are there available to you, you have got epidemiological models, are there economic models which will show the net economic impact over the next few years of widescale vaccination and the cost of that, as opposed to the economic benefits of us being in a disease-free status country? There are two issues there, sorry.
  (Dr Grenfell) So taking the second issue first, prompted by Professor King, I have certainly started discussing with economists about putting together economic models with these epidemiological ones, and I think that is a very important point and something we need to do urgently.

  217. Thank you. And the first one, the markets?
  (Professor Woolhouse) Sorry, can you remind me?

  218. Whether or not the permanent presence of restrictions ...
  (Professor Woolhouse) The answer is, yes, it would have helped, but you probably want a precise quantification of how much it would have helped, and I cannot give you that because we do not have that information on demography and livestock movements that we would need to have to make a formal assessment. So it is an interactive process, we need to get the information.

Mr Drew

  219. The cull, for those who were opposed to many aspects of what was carried through, was, if we had only looked at the 1967 report and followed through the measures that that recommended then much of this did not need to happen. What is your answer to that criticism?
  (Professor King) I think my answer would be two-fold. First of all, the 1967 outbreak, as I hope with this one, provides lessons and lessons need to be learned and need to be written in stone so they are learned. One of the lessons from that outbreak, and many other outbreaks, which was emphasised in a paper that my colleague wrote right near the beginning of this outbreak, is the need to cull animals out on infected premises quickly, to achieve a 24-hour cull on the initial premises is vital. And, obviously, if that had been implemented from the beginning here, our feeling is that this outbreak would have been curtailed. There are lessons to be learned, but at the same time this was a different strain of the virus and so it developed in a different form, we have talked about, for example, airborne particles, this virus apparently spreads rather less in airborne manner than the virus of 1967; the 1967 outbreak was predominantly a cattle outbreak, this one is predominantly a sheep outbreak. So we could not simply translate from what was learned there to this outbreak.

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