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Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman heckles me about when the measures will start. They will all be under way as quickly as possible. I am reporting to the House the on-going work that the Government are undertaking. We are getting on with it.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) referred to the immediate slaughter of animals that a veterinarian believes have the clinical signs of foot and mouth disease. In the case of almost all the cattle and some 80 per cent. of animals that have been slaughtered, the request to slaughter was submitted on the advice of the veterinarian who made the clinical examination. We do not wait for the tests to confirm the virus, although they are undertaken. If a professional veterinarian identifies the disease on clinical examination, the request to slaughter is made straight away.
On alternative strategies, I shall explain why it is necessary to slaughter the animals as soon as the disease is found, which comes as a shock to people who are not familiar with the industry. The hon. Gentleman is right. I have repeatedly explained that the animal breathes out the virus, and once it is dead the problem is of a different order. Thus it is necessary to kill the animal as soon as the disease is discovered.
I appreciate that it is one of the most harrowing things for a farmer to see his flock or herd slaughtered, even if it is for understandable disease control purposes. It is incredibly harrowing to experience on-farm slaughter, and having the animals remain on the farm to await removal only adds to the misery. We are examining further disposal routes, and we intend to make use of burial. The hon. Gentleman was right to ask me about burial. We are also looking into the possibility of opening further rendering plants specifically for this purpose. I understand that we are about to have a plant up and running in Devon, so the movement of animals from Devon up to the north will no longer be necessary. We are in discussions with the Environment Agency about what would affect the water table and what would be safe. We are also considering other routes of disposal.
There is much concern about the movement of carcases in wagons. It is not the journey that poses the risk. However, if the hon. Gentleman knows of a lorry that has not been sheeted properly or is not as it should be, I urge him or anyone else to take the lorry's licence number and report it. A Member of Parliament can report it to me.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman now has a case near his constituency in Suffolk, because that area has thankfully been free up till now. The disease must have been incubating in an animal for a fortnight or so before it emerged. He will have heard me say that it is our intention to pursue dangerous contacts that have gone into areas that we believe to be clear, which may include his constituency, and to take the precautionary measure of purchasing the animals for destruction. Our deliberate strategy is to try to keep the clear areas free of the disease.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the outbreak was under control. I do not want to get into a semantic quarrel, but when I say that it is absolutely under control, I mean precisely that. The movement controls that are in place are very severe indeed. The fact that more disease emerges does not mean that the outbreak is not under control.
There are two factors about which no one can be certain. The first is the extent of the infectivity that is still out there, and the measures that I have announced today are designed to bear down on that on a precautionary basis. The second is the geographical location of infectivity. However, we know that there are specific problems in three areas--on the English-Welsh border, in Devon and in Cumbria. What I have announced today is intended to bear down on those specific problems.
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): My right hon. Friend will be aware that, to date, Norfolk has not suffered an outbreak of the disease. However, I was pleased to hear him state the precautionary principle,
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the first priority is to bear down on the disease and eliminate it, and to avoid anything that risks spreading it. I am especially concerned to ensure that the disease-free areas stay disease free. That is why we are tracing the movement into those areas of animals that are suspected of being at risk. We are purchasing those animals for destruction. It is the Government's clear intention to keep disease-free areas disease free.
The Minister has announced plans for the slaughter of overwintering ewes in restricted areas. Will he confirm that that policy will be implemented only as a last resort and that, if possible, other measures will be introduced to avoid taking what is clearly a drastic measure?
Is the Minister aware that sheep prices in the north of England are collapsing because of the sheer number of sheep being moved under licence to abattoirs? It is possible that the low prices will mean that there is little benefit to farmers in sending sheep there. Is he also aware of scare stories to the effect that even grain cannot be exported because of the possibility of spreading the disease? I hope that we can put such stories into perspective.
What assurances can the Minister give the House about the contingency planning measures that were in place prior to the outbreak? For instance, after the 1967 outbreak, it was recommended that epidemiological teams comprising personnel from various bodies should be set up. The teams were to have two main functions. The relevant report stated:
The report from which I have quoted also recommended considerable additional research into foot and mouth disease, but we learned today that the last remaining independent research facility, CAMBAC, is about to close. It was supported by MAFF and the Meat and Livestock Commission, and was a very valuable source of research, especially into pigs. At a time when we need more research and information capable of being disseminated throughout the world, does the Minister agree that it is a great shame that that facility should be closing?
Although there is a dispute between the UK and Morocco over a shipment of grain, I assure the hon. Gentleman that grain poses no risk whatsoever of spreading foot and mouth disease. That is being explained to the Moroccan authorities.
On the movement of sheep in their winter quarters, there is an order of decision making. If we can safely move them, we will, but each case must be looked at very carefully. We must ensure that lorries are disinfected, that animals are not carrying the disease and that they will not move to areas where there is a risk of infectivity. All that must be considered case by case.
We are looking at providing advice and what other support we can, although it is necessarily limited, to aid husbandry on site, if that is possible. I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand why that is not always possible, but there may be local solutions that can be adopted, including temporary housing and the bringing in of specialists to assist with lambing. The third option--it is the last resort--is mercy killing.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I thank the Minister for his statement. It is a sombre statement, but I am sure that farmers in Cumbria will accept the new controls because they want to get ahead of the disease and to get it over with as quickly as possible. We still have a problem with slaughter and disposal. I have a constituent whose beasts were diagnosed three days ago and have still to be slaughtered.
Can the Minister put the outbreak in context? It is difficult in Cumbria to put it in context. What percentage of farms nationally are affected by the disease? I know that it is difficult--the Minister is very busy--but if he had the opportunity some time to come to speak to farmers in Cumbria, they would welcome the opportunity to tell him what the problems are.