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Foot and Mouth

4.4 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about foot and mouth disease. I want to update hon. Members both on the latest position on the disease outbreak and on the range of actions that the Government have been taking since I last informed the House on Wednesday 21 March. I then want to outline what we know so far about the causes and spread of the outbreak, and to announce the measures that we propose to take as a result.

At 1 pm today, there had been 668 confirmed cases in Great Britain and one in Northern Ireland. Forty-two cases were confirmed yesterday. Out of a total UK livestock population of more than 55 million, 697,500 animals have now been authorised for slaughter and 423,000 have already been slaughtered. Outside the United Kingdom, there is one case in the Republic of Ireland, and there are two cases in France and five cases in Holland.

I made public last week the epidemiological studies that I have received on the likely cause of the disease. They differed in their detail, but they were all clear that this is an unprecedented outbreak that has not yet reached its peak.

Our strategy remains focused on three key priorities. All animals--cattle, sheep and pigs--on infected farms are to be culled within 24 hours of the infection report. All animals--cattle, sheep and pigs--on contiguous farms are then to be culled within 48 hours. We are concentrating our efforts in northern Cumbria on clearing all animals identified for slaughter in Solway, and on creating a firebreak south of the worst affected area.

Last Wednesday, I explained to the House what actions the Government were taking to speed up our response to the disease. I believe that we have taken the right actions and I will spell out what effect they are already having. We have made full use of the resources of the Army. At my Ministry's request, 780 soldiers are now deployed and are helping with the logistic operations. They include 115 soldiers in Scotland and 50 in Wales, in addition to more than 600 in England, of whom 118 are in Cumbria and a further 72 in Devon. As well as the Army unit in our headquarters in London, there are Army headquarters in Exeter, Worcester, Carlisle and Dumfries. Military liaison officers will be joining all major disease control centres. The Army's role is to enhance command and control and to assist in the disposal process. Its presence allows us to free up vets to concentrate solely on veterinary matters.

Last week, I informed the House that we had put in place senior officials as directors of operations in Cumbria and Devon and were about to do so in Worcester. In addition to those three, we have since put in place further directors of operations in Stafford, Chelmsford, Gloucester, Leicester and Newcastle. These senior administrators have also taken over operational tasks from senior vets and allowed them to get on with their veterinary work.

We are also bringing more and more vets into the front line. The total number of vets in the state veterinary service who are tackling the disease is now 1,235, and we are looking to increase this number still further. We are

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following up offers of assistance from the French and Spanish Governments. An appeal by the British Veterinary Association to its members has generated a large number of inquiries, which are being pursued. Enhanced rates of pay for temporary vets were announced last week.

Wherever possible, we have reduced the time between when a vet makes one inspection and when he or she can make the next one. Where the disease risk is minimal, the turnaround time has been reduced to 24 hours. We have simplified the valuation arrangements while at the same time safeguarding farmers' interests by introducing a generous standard tariff. More than 95 per cent. of confirmations now take place on clinical grounds; that is, without the need for laboratory tests. We have revised protocols to allow vets in the field to make on-site judgments and to initiate slaughter.

The key task is to reduce the time between the first report of the disease and the slaughter of the herd or flock. Our target remains that that should not exceed 24 hours. The epidemiological studies published last week confirmed that that is the crucial intervention that will enable us to get on top of the disease. We are achieving that in large parts of the country, including Devon in recent days. In Cumbria, the high density of infection and sheer number of cases has meant that we are not yet achieving that target, and work is in hand to address that.

Yesterday, I visited the two most affected areas of the country, Cumbria and Devon. I saw for myself the hard work that is being done by the state veterinary service, the Army and all the other parties involved. I also met farmers and their leaders.

There has been a good deal of speculation recently about the possible use of vaccination as an ingredient in our foot and mouth disease control strategy. Vaccination can be used in two quite different ways. One approach is to use a national policy of vaccination as the protection mechanism against foot and mouth disease. That is not a policy that is adopted or favoured by any member state or by the European Commission.

It is, however, accepted that emergency vaccination can play a role in controlling an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, either to establish zones of protection between infected areas and the rest of the country or to reduce the number of cases in disease hot spots. The Commission has already agreed to the possible temporary use of vaccination in such circumstances by the Dutch authorities.

Vaccination is no easy option. It would be expected to delay full return to international trade, at least for the region affected, and would be likely to require tight additional controls--again, at least in the area concerned. We would need to consider, with the Commission, whether it was necessary in due course to slaughter vaccinated animals--with compensation, of course--as part of a return to normal trading.

The Government are considering whether to use vaccination. I have therefore authorised my representative in the European Union Standing Veterinary Committee to seek a contingent decision permitting the use of vaccination during the present outbreak, so that it can be deployed immediately if we conclude that it is the right approach.

We have done a great deal to help farmers financially. Our help includes full compensation for animals slaughtered on disease grounds, the provision of

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agrimonetary compensation and the preservation of common agricultural policy subsidy entitlements under EU rules on force majeure. In addition, last week I opened the livestock welfare disposal scheme as an outlet of last resort for livestock farmers whose animals face welfare difficulties as a result of foot and mouth disease-related movement restrictions. The scheme provides for the removal and disposal of animals, for which Government will bear the costs. At 90 per cent. of pre-outbreak market value, the tariffs for the animals slaughtered under the scheme are generous. The detailed payment rates are being placed in the House Libraries today. The estimated value of that optional scheme to farmers obviously depends on take-up, but it is now likely to be in excess of £200 million.

Let me now turn to what we know about the possible causes of the current outbreak, the spread of infection and the differences between this and the 1967 outbreak. It is likely that the source farm, from which the outbreak subsequently spread, was the fourth infected premises to be discovered, at Heddon-on-the-Wall. Hon. Members will be aware of speculation that the practice of feeding swill to pigs was a cause, or the cause, of the outbreak. The farm in question, at Heddon, was licensed to feed swill to pigs. Epidemiological and other investigations continue. I know that the House will understand if I do not comment on the specifics of the case.

The subsequent spread of infection is traceable to some extent. Virus from the source farm spread to seven other farms in Tyne and Wear. Sheep from one of those farms were sent to Hexham market on 13 February; sheep from the 13 February market at Hexham were sent to markets at Longtown, and further dispersed from there during the period between 14 and 24 February. So within days, at a time when we were still unaware of the disease, infected sheep were criss-crossing the country in hundreds of separate movements, and coming into contact with other livestock.

From Longtown market, sheep were sent to markets at Carlisle on 16 February and at Welshpool on 19 February; to dealers at Highampton, Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway, Dearham in Cumbria and Nantwich in Cheshire; and, indirectly, to markets at Hatherleigh on 20 February, Hereford on 21 February, Northampton on 22 February and Ross-on-Wye on 23 February.

While tracing movements of pigs from the index farm has proved relatively straightforward, tracking movements of sheep has proved more difficult, and in some cases impossible. That is partly due to unrecorded sales of sheep, which it seems took place around the edges of various livestock markets without passing through the markets' books.

Over the past four weeks, many comparisons have been drawn with the 1967 outbreak. The truth is, however, that the two outbreaks are very different. The key differences between this outbreak and that of 1967 are the speed and geographical scale of the spread of infection--which result from a number of factors--and the species involved. Experts agree that the current outbreak is unprecedented internationally. First, time had elapsed before the infection at the probable source farm was disclosed. The suspicious lesions found on pigs at Heddon-on-the-Wall on 22 February suggest that the pigs had been incubating the disease for at least two, and possibly up to three, weeks. By 23 February, when infection was confirmed at Heddon-on-the-Wall, infected

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animals had already spread through markets and dealers to Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, Devon, Cheshire, Herefordshire and Northamptonshire.

Linked to that, the second factor in the speed and scale of the spread was the larger scale of animal movements nowadays compared to 1967, aided by a much improved network of roads and motorways. A third factor was that the infection spread quickly to sheep, and then among sheep. The nature of sheep flocks and the way in which they are traded made the course of the infection more difficult to trace. The 1967 outbreak was mainly in pigs and cattle. The strain of the virus with which we are currently dealing does not manifest itself clearly in sheep, which makes detection difficult. Apparently healthy animals may be disease carriers.

I am announcing four actions in response to this assessment of the origins and spread of the disease. The first measure relates to pigswill. I am today proposing a ban on the use of swill feeding in this country. I accept that the arguments in favour of and against allowing the practice are quite finely balanced. If the statutory conditions for feeding swill are complied with--heating at 100 deg C for one hour--it does not present a risk of transmitting foot and mouth disease and other similar pathogens.

Banning swill feeding will not necessarily prevent the risk of illegal feeding of swill and catering waste to pigs--possibly by the owners of small numbers of pigs, for example. However, I have concluded that the risk of swill feeding introducing disease to livestock farms on which swill is not used, and to the wider community, is now greater than the benefits to the relatively small number of premises that continue to adopt the practice. That is why I am proposing an early ban.

My Department is today issuing a public consultation document seeking the views of all interested parties on the principle and detailed application of such a ban. Meanwhile, let me remind the owners of all the pigs in the country, including pet pigs, to comply with the current law. It is illegal to feed untreated household waste or any other materials that may contain meat products.

I am also issuing a second consultation document today containing a proposal to introduce a 20-day standstill period, after movement, for sheep, goats and cattle. There are rules on the identification and movement of pigs, including a general requirement that no pigs should be moved off premises within 20 days of any pigs moving on to those premises. If a similar requirement had been in place, and observed, in relation to sheep in particular, it is likely that the spread of the foot and mouth virus would have been significantly slowed down, making tracing and control of the infection easier. I am minded, therefore, to introduce legislation to require a 20-day standstill period for sheep, goats and cattle, subject to the views of interested parties. That is why I am launching a full consultation exercise today.

Thirdly, we know that, somehow, infection has entered this country. One possible way is through illegal commercial imports of meat, in which contents have not been declared. There is clearly an issue in relation to carrier liability, to which the Government will give careful thought. Another possibility is that infected produce might have come in as a personal import. Rules already exist to control such imports, and they must be enforced effectively. I am co-ordinating action across government

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to ensure that this happens. I shall also write to Commissioner Byrne to stress that a consistent and tough approach needs to be taken across the European Union.

Lastly, once we are beyond the current difficulties, my Department will consider a range of other issues relating to the operation of the livestock sector, to ascertain whether more can be done to minimise disease risks still further. This work will cover the operation of markets--in particular, out-of-ring sales--and the identification and tracing of pigs, sheep and goats. In all those matters, I shall act in close consultation with the devolved Administrations.

This has been a dreadful time for farmers and others directly affected by foot and mouth disease. I believe that our policy of containing the disease is the right one, and that the massive logistical exercise required to implement it is being reinforced. We will succeed in eradicating this disease. In addition, I believe that the measures I have announced today will ensure that we learn the lessons and minimise the risks of such a tragedy in the future.

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