Foot-and-mouth 10 years on: Was it right not to vaccinate?
TO vaccinate or not to vaccinate became one of the most divisive debates ever to take place within the farming industry. On the face of it, it was about life or death, but the reality was much more complex.
The question of vaccination was raised at the start of the outbreak but the Government initially deemed it impractical. But as the number of outbreaks grew towards 50 a day during March, the clamour for vaccination grew.
Prime Minister Tony Blair came under intense pressure from a powerful pro-vaccination lobby, led by the Prince of Wales, who met Ministers face-to-face to make his case, and Soil Association heavyweights Patrick Holden and Peter Melchett.
By the end of March, Chief Government Scientist Prof David King’s FMD Science Group unanimously backed a plan to vaccinate housed cattle in Cumbria ahead of spring grazing.
A recommendation for ‘emergency vaccination’ was made on March 27, EU permission was secured and 156 vaccination teams were put on three-day standby.
All that was needed was industry approval. It never came. The plan was vigorously opposed by most farm leaders, led by NFU president Ben Gill, and MAFF Chief Veterinary Officer Jim Scudamore. They had the support of Agriculture Minister Nick Brown.
Sir Ben Gill claims he finally persuaded Mr Blair to drop plans for vaccination during a ‘one-to-one’ meeting at Chequers on April 17, as he persuaded Mr Blair that vaccinated animals would probably have to be killed at a later date, the policy adopted in Holland.
“The problem with vaccination is that you have no means of identifying the animals that have become infectious and are emitting vast quantities of virus but never show symptoms because they are vaccinated,” says Sir Ben.
There were also indications from Tesco it ‘would not sell products our customers regard as inferior’, and Nestle also had concerns about taking vaccinated milk from Cumbria.
Mr Brown also highlights the logistical difficulties of mass vaccination and the ‘huge trade implications’ for a food industry that exported about £12 billion of food a year.
Within a few days of the meetings, the policy was dropped, but Mr Brown is adamant the right decision was made.
“I was right to trust Ben Gill, representing the working farmers, supermarket chiefs and the chief vet, people whose advice I respected,” he says.
But the Soil Association remains adamant the Government got it wrong. Phil Stocker, the organic body’s director of farmer and grower relations, said the association believed the main barrier to vaccination was the UK’s export status.
“We took the view that an extended trade ban might have helped us move towards a more sustainable, local and UK-based meat trade,” he says.
He says tests were available to distinguish vaccinated from infected animals and that a vaccinate—to—live policy would have been possible and the association would have supported such a plan.
But Sir Ben remains defiant. “It was a horrible decision to make but if we had vaccinated we would not have controlled the disease and far more animals would have been slaughtered,” he says.
Foot-and-mouth facts: figures from the outbreak
- The epidemic lasted 221 days
- It struck in 44 British counties
- Total cost was £3bn, of which £1.3bn went to farmers as compensation
- A total of 10,157 premises were affected by the disease
- A total of 6.45 million animals were slaughtered in the UK during foot and mouth, but many believe the actual figure to be over 10m.