Failures that led to dreaded disease returning

JUST a week ago sitting in the comfort of a GNER train heading for London for a couple of days with both business and pleasure on the schedule I felt more relaxed than for some time.

The weather was fine and just about all of the harvest appeared to be gathered in while farmers were clearly engaged in a mad rush to drill as large an area of winter cereals as possible. But, most importantly, the foot-and-mouth crisis appeared to be over, markets were once more operating in a near-normal fashion and there was the great annual Kelso ram sales to look forward to at the end of the week.

The trip was thoroughly enjoyable, though I suspect that a pint of beer will be even more expensive once the brewers factor in the doubling of barley prices! It was back to the desk on Wednesday morning catching up with a long queue of e-mails and then at 10:20am precisely, the news broke on BBC Radio Five Live that at least one more case of FMD had been diagnosed in Surrey. Total disaster was my immediate reaction, especially since I had resolved to write as little as possible about the dreaded disease now that a sense of normality had appeared to return to the countryside.

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The mood among the livestock farming community is now close to despair because this could not have happened at a worse time of the year. But that despair is entwined with real anger over the fact that it is now apparent that insufficient measures were put in place to prevent further spread of the virus from the initial location. I have no quibble with the decision to impose an immediate standstill on all animal movements. However, along with every farmer in the land, I remain incensed at the total incompetence of the UK department of the environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA). Thankfully, the remit of this government agency does not extend north of the Border, but the industry is still being made to suffer through a series of catastrophic blunders that have the potential to cost tens, if not hundreds, of million pounds to the farming and associated industries.

Gordon Brown received plaudits for breaking his holiday in early August when the first case was confirmed, but he has much to answer for in his time at the Treasury. Brown has never shown himself to be remotely farmer-friendly. He is known to have been furious at the cost of the 2001 epidemic and the strain it placed on his budget and since then he has successfully reined in the funds for research and development. I suspect that is why the drains at Pirbright were never fixed.

Since 2005, the budget of the Institute of Animal Health (at Pirbright) has been slashed by almost 20 per cent while there has been a parallel fall in the level of staff. It is also widely understood that the State Veterinary Service has seen resources trimmed. I wrote four weeks ago that there must be a full and open public inquiry, but I am increasingly concerned this will not happen.

Sir Brian Spratt and the Health and Safety Executive made some damning comments in their initial report published a fortnight ago that has ruffled a few feathers. The truth is that the government is terrified at what an inquiry might unearth and of the potential political ramifications. That is why the Prime Minister will seek to fudge the whole issue.

Meanwhile, in Scotland the government was quick to permit the movement of livestock from farm to slaughter while auction marts are once more permitted to operate as collection centres. That is some relief, but the real problem lies with the huge backlog of sales of store and breeding cattle and sheep.

The National Sheep Association and the Scottish Beef Cattle Association have both called for a regional approach to unwinding the restrictions, but so far NFU Scotland has not showed its hand on this issue.

I suspect that the industry could just about survive without live sales for another fortnight, but any longer would be virtually impossible.

One of the biggest problems is going to be the loss of export markets for sheep.

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Even if the Surrey outbreak is contained there is little prospect of Brussels lifting the export ban as swiftly as it did following the August incident.

To put in bluntly, there is likely to be no market for a large number of lambs, especially lighter animals. I fear there will have to be a welfare disposal scheme to get rid of these sheep. There is a precedent for this in that measures were taken in 2001. But the government, and I mean Whitehall not Edinburgh, will have to meet the bill.

There has been much discussion in recent months about cost sharing in the event of another major disease outbreak. The industry has rejected the proposals, largely because there has been little mention from official sources of risk sharing.

Another problem looming on the horizon is the availability of transport when the auction marts resume business.

James Withers, the deputy chief executive of NFUS, explained the situation: "We understand that the UK government has turned down the Scottish Government and industry request for a temporary relaxation on drivers' hours.

"We are at a loss as to understand why they have their heads in the sand on this. As soon as markets re-open north of the Border, the relief is going to be short-lived if the transport just isn't there."

It is going to take real leadership to relieve this appalling crisis and I am far from certain that Brown possesses that quality.

I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."