Foot-and-mouth special feature.

Foot-and-mouth 10 years on: Sir Ben Gill looks back

SIR Ben Gill, then president of the NFU, looks back on a time when he dominated the national news agenda and we ask what lessons have been learnt a decade on.

NEWSNIGHT opens with footage of Tony Blair in animated conversation with Ben Gill outside Downing Street. “One of these men is running the country,” begins Jeremy Paxman’s voiceover. “The other is the Prime Minister.”

The ‘classic clip’, recollected with obvious pride by the former NFU president, is a reminder of just how much influence he wielded in 2001.

He takes credit for persuading Mr Blair that his initial promises to deliver ‘any resources we wanted’ were not being delivered, as bureaucrats arguing about budgets got in the way.

“Over the first three weeks, we were getting angrier and angrier as things weren’t happening. I went in to see Blair and he was horrified that what he had promised had not been delivered. He told us to come back in 48 hours and he would guarantee things would be done. He stayed true to his word,” Sir Ben said when he spoke to FG earlier this month.

Sir Ben’s subsequent role in backing and promoting the FMD cull strategy and in dissuading Mr Blair from pursuing a vaccination policy are well documented, including in articles elsewhere on this website.

He even claims to have caused ‘uproar’ in the Commons’ and across the countryside by personally persuading the Government to ‘close all the footpaths’ because he believed the risk of the disease being spread by the public warranted it. “MPs were livid and the local authorities were saying: “What are doing letting Gill run the country?”” he said.

As well as being hugely influential within Government, his regular media appearances turned him into one of country’s most familiar faces during the crisis. The relentlessness of those months took its toll.

“It was exhausting,” he recalled. “On a number of occasions I would go back to the flat after Newsnight at midnight and be in the car at 530am to talk to GMTV,” he said.

But his influence, and in particular his autocratic style of leadership, made him a divisive figure. Agriculture Minister Nick Brown described Sir Ben as one of the ‘big heroes’ of 2001 and praised the way he got the views of his members, ‘the working farmers’, so effectively across to Government. Former NFU colleagues also pay tribute to the tireless way he fought for his members.

But others, including the Soil Association, which bitterly opposed him over vaccination, and the NFU’s South West regional director of the time, Anthony Gibson, accuse him of ignoring the views of many farmers and driving his own personal agenda in 2001.

Sir Ben acknowledged that it was ‘impossible’ for him to hold farmer meetings to consult members directly on policy, which meant decisions had to be based more on his own views and of his senior staff than might otherwise have been the case.

But he insisted that on the occasions when he did meet farmers, for example in Devon where the contiguous cull was extremely controversial, they were ‘100 per cent behind me’.

He describes the Government response to the outbreak as ‘woefully inadequate’ but defends the roles of the two main politicians, Tony Blair Nick Brown. “Nick tried his hardest and was extremely frustrated but it wasn’t his fault. It was the administration’s fault. Civil servants got bogged down in bureaucracy and the messages coming up to Ministers were not admitting the reality on the ground.”

He admitted that the scale of the decisions he took in 2001, particularly ‘weighed heavy’ on his mind but he insisted that 10 years on he still believed they were the right ones.

“The people who were vociferous in favour of vaccination thought I didn’t give a damn and made all sorts of claims that I didn’t understand the subject,” he said.

“But I spent a lot of time talking to scientists. Had we vaccinated far more animals would have been slaughtered.

“It was a horrible decision we had to make. There were inevitably animals slaughtered that needn’t have been but you have to be hard to be kind. It is a fact that we stamped out disease.”

Readers' comments (7)

  • Mr Gill claims he "spent a lot of time talking to scientists. Had we vaccinated far more animals would have been slaughtered."

    He does not reveal which “scientists” told him such nonsense – but it sounds like the sort of thing that David King and Roy Anderson might have said. They were in senior positions advising the Government but neitherr had any known expertise in virology, had little understanding of how the vaccines worked nor how they could be administered to give immunity within days. David King and co. were apparently also ignorant of both the EU emergency FMD vaccine banks and the EU funds that were there for the asking.

    The vaccination in favour of which people were so "vociferous" was vaccination-to-live. Not the slaughter the Netherlands used after the Dutch Government led their farmers to believe that if they vaccinated their animals they would be protected from slaughter – and then insisted all must be killed to protect the FMD-free status .

    A newspaper from Korea today ( quotes the professor of veterinary medicine at the Seoul National University: “Defending the FMD-free status without vaccination for exports is such a lame excuse. That’s just to cover up the failure of having missed the timing for vaccination.”

    In any future outbreak of FMD it looks horribly as if the UK will do exactly the same.

    After all, defending the “FMD without vaccination” trading status can be the only reason left for not vaccinating. We hear the meaningless phrase “vaccination will be considered” but this covers up reluctance with weasel words. In 2001 vaccination was “considered” too, but
    the perpetrators of the contiguous cull convinced Mr Blair that massive postcode slaughter of the uninfected animals surrounding a suspected infected farm would cause the disease, as Magnus Linklater put it, “ to drift gently down to hit zero by June 7” - i.e. the date of the 2001 general election.

    Because it had Ben Gill on its side, the government could claim that farmers didn’t want vaccination. This was to destroy a great deal of sympathy that ordinary people had for the farmers who were so distraught at the loss of their herds and flocks and who, even today, can hardly bear to think about foot and mouth.

    In 2003, Vince Cable was to remark: “It is about who gets to the Prime Minister's ear first and how you respond to tomorrow's headlines. As a result some awful decisions were made and it cost billions of pounds.”

    The figure generally accepted is £8 billion. That was the cost – in financial terms only – spent to save the UK’s export trade worth less than £500 million.

    And as we are seeing in Korea, such madness could all happen again.

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  • Well said Anonymous. Blair, Gill and their advisers should hang their heads in shame for being party to this shambolic denial of scientific truths, and the appalling cruelty and waste that ensued.

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  • “But I spent a lot of time talking to scientists. Had we vaccinated far more animals would have been slaughtered."

    Alas Mr Gill is no more aware of the science and the absurdity of that remark, 10 years on .

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  • “But I spent a lot of time talking to scientists. Had we vaccinated far more animals would have been slaughtered."

    This is quite absurd and seems to me to demonstrates the abject failure to the MAFF to ensure that they consulted the best scientific advice available. A direct comparison can be made with Uruguay, where only 6937 animals were slaughtered, even though the FMD was widespread with many foci affecting 2057 holdings in total. Stamping out (Alternative 1 of the Uruguayan Contingency Plan) was only carried out in the first week of the epidemic, to be replaced by a mass vaccination programme of the entire cattle population of Uruguay, starting May 5 (Alternative 4 of the Contingency Plan). Stamping out was abandoned when it was realised that the disease had broken out of the original areas, and was widespread and with many foci. Interestingly, it is this very argument that was employed by those with influence in the UK against the use of vaccination! In fact, Uruguay illustrates quite dramatically how vaccination was precisely the tool to use in that situation, with the last case of the disease being in late August 2001, just 4 months after the first case. On Tuesday
    9th October 2001, the Veterinary Committee of the European Union proposed to the Commission to grant authorisation to Uruguay to resume meat production (cattle, sheep and goats) for the European Union. The Commission issued Decision 2001/767/CE, dated 31 October 2001, authorising to resume production as from 1st November 2001 (Uruguay Embassy Report).
    The total cost to Uruguay of the epidemic was 13.6 million US dollars, of which 7.5 million was for vaccine purchase, and the balance for compensation, cleaning, disinfection and operating expenses (some military expenses not included). (Sutmoller et al). Compare these figures with minimum total costs in the UK of £6 billion, but costs to the wider economy very much greater (Institute of Directors). Furthermore, if vaccination had been employed in the UK, we would have been eligible under the Council Decision on Veterinary Expenditure 90/424 for compensation from the EU for 100% vaccine costs, and 50% costs of carrying out vaccination, and 60% of costs to farmers connected with restrictions on marketing of stock due to emergency vaccination.

    What was needed in 2001, and I believe is still needed now, is to have on the Expert Group an FMD veterinary expert with field experience of devising and implementing successful large scale vaccination policies. Only in this way can a meaningful/realistic Contingency Plan for FMD vaccination be drawn up, and all the inevitable questions from stakeholders answered, fears allayed, and myths about vaccination dispelled. (Sources Uruguay Embassy Report; Sutmoller et al).

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  • I was very angry when I wrote an email to Ben Gill back in 2001 - thinking about FMD today, not much has changed even now!
    Here's the FG interview and what I said.
    Farmer's Guardian - Ben GILL Interview ( 24th August 2001) with the responses of: Bryn WAYT interleaved
    NFU President Ben Gill has defended his leadership of the NFU during the foot-and-mouth crisis, following criticism at a meeting in Cumbria last week.
    GILL: "I am perfectly happy to defend everything we have done," he told FG at the Mid Somerset Show, Shepton Mallett.
    BRYN: Well that is pretty bloody easy Mr Gill, because you lot (NFU) have done pretty well bugger all to save healthy animals, and you have done pretty well bugger all for a FULL Public Inquiry either. Defend "everything" you have done, that will take one little breath. It’s what you have NOT DONE that is indefensible Mr Gill. You can’t talk your way out of that paper bag.
    GILL: "That's not to say I wouldn't change things, I defy anyone who says they wouldn't, because they are deluding themselves."
    BRYN: Well, we are now getting near the crux of the matter! Change things… your bloody life you would change things. Only a lunatic would not want to change things – change things after the world’s worst screw up of tackling a FMD outbreak. As a government "things" will have to "change" and as a union "things" will have to "change". But what things would you change Ben? That is what a few of us outside the farm gate would like to know, never mind those inside. Would you STOP imports of vaccinated meat from foreign lands and protect our own island interests? Would you join in marches and give our farmers visible assurances and a fighting chance? Where’s your Press Release on that front? Would you demand a STOP to those countries who keep sending BSE in through our back door?
    The Germans were damn quick banning our meat under similar circumstances, but we continue to import their SRM on a regular basis and not a squeak from you!
    The only delusion is coming from your mob. No wonder you would want to change things – you don’t even know the rules about vaccinated animal products and the UK (sorry EU) labelling situation !
    GILL: He dismissed his Cumbria critics: "I spoke to them afterwards, and they were a mountaineering instructor, a retired butcher's wife and a woman whose father-in-law farmed sheep. They were not practical farmers and the flak was on one subject - vaccination.
    BRYN: You were lucky anybody spoke to you! This nation are not all "practical farmers" and as such have a great deal more flak to throw at you…..and it’s about vaccination too, and your limp agenda on a FULL Public Inquiry into FMD. Are you going to denounce them as more mountaineering instructors, retired butcher’s wife’s and more woman whose sister’s husband’s uncle’s friends granny, farm sheep? The flak you got from three non practical farmers is delivered from the Heart of Britain, not just the thin slice 29% of "real" farmers whom you take union subscriptions from and do nought with. Why did you lie back and do bugger all to tell the British housewife that thousand of tonnes of VACCINATED meat has entered this country more often than simulated refugees seeking asylum ?
    Why did you not reassure the country that VACCINATED meat is safe to eat and they have been eating it for years (was it because you did not know)? Because your political agenda does not allow it, does it! I see your union took time out to canvas 100 farmers (real ones I hope) about how FMD has affected them. That was a HUGE undertaking Ben - what did that cost? £50 on phones calls? Whew! And the outcome was they had lost money - apart from one hell of a lot not mentioned. What has the union decided in their magnificence; that 'flyers' advertising B&B on the farms are to be pushed out to appropriate focal points. WELL DONE mate, a bunch of girl guides could have figured that out for you. How about another postal consensus of EVERY NFU member on their views on vaccination, and see if they want a FULL Public Inquiry into the FMD cock-up? See if your minority of farmers in this green and pleasant land agree with the sound, sensible, and wise view of a mountaineering instructor, a retired butcher’s wife, and a woman whose father-in-law farmed sheep. If the majority don’t agree on VACCINATION and a FULL Public Inquiry, then I will personally climb up the highest mountain in Britain, led by a mountaineering instructor, in company with a retired butcher’s wife and a woman whose father-in-law farms sheep and eat some humble pie with sheep nuts in the middle! If they do agree then YOU will climb that mountain led by a mountaineering instructor, a retired butcher’s wife…OK you know the rest !!
    GILL: The next day I sat down with 16 Cumbrian branch chairmen, and they totally supported us on vaccination."
    BRYN: So Ben, it is you and just 16 others that makes it policy NOT to vaccinate, and the result is about 10 MILLION animals are slaughtered in the biggest nauseating mess the world has witnessed……sorry sonny Jim, that will not do the electorate of the UK. There are few more voices than 17 to be heard on this.
    GILL: "The general public correctly asks, why isn't there a proper vaccine to deal with the problem?
    BRYN: The "general public" do not know their ass from their merino, so don’t give us this "proper vaccine" crap. Ask professionals who know the business, like Dr Ruth Watkins, Prof. Fred Brown, and they will inform the general public (and you apparently) there is suitable vaccine available for this Type "O" pan-Asian virus and Type A too.... It has been used around the world in case you don’t know. Maybe even ask the Dutch (the cost of a phone call) they leapt into the dark !!!
    GILL: And who was shouting about that in 1993? I was.
    BRYN: So why are you not shouting about it now ?
    GILL: "I saw the Government slash funding for basic research into animal diseases, then that inadequate budget was decimated following by BSE…….."
    BRYN: Your mate Blair was blowing his trumpet that BSE cost the nation £3.5 BILLION and what do we get - a Public Inquiry. FMD has cost the nation £20 BILLION at the very least; where’s your shouting voice gone now Ben? There is a deathly hush from the mighty NFU know all.
    GILL: So just because it's a good idea, you can't do it if it isn't there and there was no appropriate vaccine.
    BRYN: What in the hell are you talking about, "no appropriate vaccine"? Is that what Blair has told you, or what the Argentineans or the Brazilians told you? Get a grip mate, you have had six months to study the form and you still believe the spin from DEFRA! Time you got out more.
    GILL: People make out that it just didn't sound right, but I spent hours with virologists and epidemiologists."
    BRYN: Sounds as if you have been keeping bad company!
    GILL: He admitted more could have been done to make the Government to realise the gravity of the situation in the early days of the crisis.
    BRYN: Will he admit more could still be done to knock some bloody sense into Blair and VACCINATE NOW ! The gravity of the situation is blacking him out and all those near the man. They are in a centrifuge of their own making and can’t stop the spin.
    GILL: "I feared for the worst and hoped for the best".
    BRYN: Well your fears were answered, and there is not much left of the best. Time to stop hoping and do something POSITIVE - like VACCINATE NOW !
    GILL: "Maybe we should have pushed the Government harder when we thought they were listening and they weren't"
    BRYN: So here is an admission they were NOT listening. They are still not listening ! Some honesty at last. Yes matey, maybe you should have pushed the government harder, maybe you should have kicked butt when you had the chance, it’s THREE WISHES time for you Ben and I shall tell you what they are.
    1. Kick their butt NOW
    GILL: "……about what was going wrong in the beginning. But that's hindsight."
    BRYN: We are all smart arses when it comes to hindsight. It is just not what went wrong in the beginning, it's still going wrong now as we speak! We, the mountaineers, the retired butcher’s wife’s and the women whose father-in-law’s farm sheep, and the Heart of Britain who own the country want some foresight from the likes of you to grab the bull by the horns, not to slaughter it on suspicion but to VACCINATE NOW. It is never too late; what’s your excuse now? Don’t say hindsight.
    Be in no doubt readers, the FMD Contingency Plan is no better than the one HMG used back in 2001. If we get FMD tomorrow, it's another 2001 action reply, because NOTHING has changed in the minds of Defra/HMG.

    Bryn WAYT

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  • There's none so ignorant as them as don't want to know. i.e. DEFRA, HMG etc

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  • The memories of the people involved and the disaster that took place came flooding back when I read this article and the comments, still remember Colin Fink and Bryn Wayt among others. WHen it comes to Ben Gill, just remember how when it came to a difficult question about FMD on the today program. radio4, his phone suddenly 'cut off' - strange that. Vaccination was the answer, but a lot of the activity was sadly delayed due to the slow start in recognising the outbreak had spread around the country. If you read the Anderson report, it is very clear about the start of the epidemic and how there was at least a 5 day delay from the point that Alex Donaldson diagnosed FMD at the Abbatoir that first reported signs. It was a disgrace, and there are a lot of people that should have been held accountable for it. Prof Fred Brown would have been incandescent if he had known about the subsequent lack of biosecurity at Pirbright which caused the 2006 outbreak, and the dreadful slaughtering that again took place - strange how FMD stopped 1/2 mile from Windsor Castle after the Klondyke herd were slaughtered in Runnymede, or is it that strange?

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