Examination of witness (Questions 20-39)|
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
20. What you have described is the importance
of those giving the scientific advice being aware of the practicalities
down on the farm, as it were. With the BSE crisis, the recommendation
was that meat and bone-meal should not used, and yet nobody seemed
to be aware of the stocks that were on the farms. With this foot
and mouth, we have the problem that MAFF did not seem to be aware
of the extent of sheep movements. Do you think there is a problem
there of liaison between the scientists giving the advice and
perhaps the people out on the ground, who are doing the more routine
work in relation to farms, or whatever the subject is, and is
that something that needs to be put right?
(Professor King) The epidemiologists will all explain
to you that this epidemic provided them with the most fantastic
data, and that data, which is not perfect, but compared with other
epidemics of this kind it was quite remarkable, was gathered by
MAFF in the early phase of the epidemic, and this is the tracing
I was referring to earlier on, the tracing which goes back to
Heddon-on-the-Wall and then forward through the epidemic. And,
quite early on, MAFF, through the tracing and through sales of
sheep, particularly from Longtown, realised that this amount of
movement had occurred.
21. But my point is that should not MAFF have
been aware that this amount of movement was taking place, routinely,
across the country, and actually had some foresight into the potential
risks of this activity; and that is what really worries me about
(Professor King) Yes, but, I am not sure I should
say this, it could be that half of the sheep movement that occurred
was not recorded. It is apparent, from the way the outbreak developed,
there was some borrowing of sheep that was occurring.
Chairman: We know what you mean. We will leave
22. Yes, that is a nice euphemism. How have
you set about ensuring that the Government has had the best range
of scientific advice available to tackle this problem, and what
disciplines have you involved, other than epidemiology, and what
sources of advice, whether government departments, academic departments,
and whatever, have you brought into this?
(Professor King) The group has been growing as time
has moved on from that initial state. So, initially, we had epidemiologists
drawn from MAFF (John Wilesmith), from Imperial College, from
Cambridge, from Edinburgh and also there is a group from Oxford;
four of those groups have been modelling the epidemic, from, I
think, about 8 March they started. We also brought in the experts
from the Pirbright Animal Health Institute, Alex Donaldson and
Paul Kitching; we brought in modellers from MoD and DERA. And
the reason for bringing in those modellers was that they were
modelling the handling of the epidemic, so this is, for example,
dealing with the carcasses, dealing with the disposal of animals;
and it was quite clear that any modelling that we did, and put
advice forward on the basis of, ought to go hand in hand with
this modelling, so that we would put forward realistic scenarios.
Amongst our group are four people who have practised as vets,
and we now have someone who is not a virologist but is a practising
vet from Devon; we brought in, for example, Gareth Davies, who
is a retired vet and is now a consultant to MAFF on this epidemic.
And, in addition, using the telephone reasonably widely, I spoke
to a large number of people round the world, to discuss who the
experts were in the UK and also to try to get further information.
23. To what extent were you helped by the lessons
learned from the 1967 outbreak?
(Professor King) Inevitably, it was important that
we had, within our team, epidemiologists who had modelled the
1967 outbreak; the Imperial College team, in particular, had just
published, I think in 1999, a paper on that outbreak, and so the
lessons drawn from that were brought into the committee.
24. This is a supplementary, Chair. Can I ask
you to comment? I do not normally, in this Committee, refer to
Private Eye, but there is what appears to be a fairly scurrilous
accusation here, from `Even Newer Muckspreader' to the effect
that there was some malfeasance in the reporting of statistics
of numbers of daily outbreaks. I do not know if you have seen
(Professor King) No.
25. Do you want to see it? I do not take it
that seriously, but if you would like to comment on that. And
can you assure us that the reporting of the statistical information
(Professor King) This says: "No 10 has co-opted
Professor Roy Anderson's Imperial College computer to show the
government's policies now working so brilliantly that the epidemic
will come to an end on precisely 7 June." I have been asked,
on several occasions, at these media briefings, about, "What
are you predicting for 7 June?" and I see the question as
one that I have very little sympathy for, because I have been
at great pains to give forward objective scientific advice, and
I believe the whole committee has done that. The personalising
of it, through Professor Roy Anderson, is one of the absurd games
that the media has played with this. Roy Anderson has been a good
team player within that large committee of 16, 17 people, and
we have all worked extremely hard, Chairman, the whole team, to
try to do our best, in terms of the scientific input we could
make, to bring it under control with the minimum number of animals
killed. The timescale we thought was less important than the number
of animals killed.
26. Just as a very quick question, following
up Dr Turner, could you assure us that you are all working as
scientists and not as politico-scientists?
(Professor King) I can give you that absolute assurance.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
27. Did MAFF actually have any contingency plans
to deal with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease?
(Professor King) Your question I am going to take
as rather like Dr Jones's previous question. My answer is, I do
not know, and nor have I asked.
28. Right; but do you have the impression that
they had sufficient in-house skills, in either veterinary skills
or scientific skills, to meet such a crisis, or any future crises?
Because, fortunately, foot and mouth disease is not life-threatening
to humans but it is not impossible for exotic diseases to be imported
which could be highly life-threatening. Is MAFF ready to deal
(Professor King) Could I answer your question in this
way. I think that, for an episode of this kind, which was a major
national disaster, it is critically important, and this is really
part of the Chief Scientific Adviser's guidelines, for any Department
to draw in scientific expertise from a wide range. I do not believe
that any Department would have, in-house, all of the expertise
needed to deal with an episode of this kind.
29. But they do need the expertise to be able
to identify where the gaps are; that is the crucial issue?
(Professor King) You do; that is quite right. And
I could make broad-ranging comments about science in Government
Departments on this level.
30. We are about to move to a wider area. You
will not be surprised, Professor King, that we have taken up nearly
half our time on foot and mouth, which probably is pretty mean,
compared with the fact that you are taking up nearly all your
time on foot and mouth. We are about to move now onto other subjects.
But I wonder if, from the Chair, I could ask just one question
that has worried me for a little while now, personally. Whenever
I have a bonfire, however vicious the bonfire is or vigorous the
bonfire is, there are always one or two leaves that rise from
the bonfire and flutter into my next-door neighbour's garden,
unburnt, untouched. I have wondered about these pyres that are
burning the corpses, when bits of wool, or anything else, are
just fluttering up, with virus on, that are carrying that virus
around, and I wonder if you have any information on that? And
when this Committee went to Porton Down, some two or three months
ago, we know that there are military vehicles that can take air
samples and look for bacteria or virus. Have the military vehicles
that are in reserve in the event of a nerve war been used to detect
whether there are viruses going through the air from these enormous
(Professor King) The answer is that this question
has been raised from quite early on, and the Pirbright team, I
believe, have been gathering data. To date, no data, and I am
only going from memory here, showing the presence of the virus
surviving in this; but, clearly, a large sampling needs to be
done before one can be at all sure of this. A small amount of
virus going up in the way that you describe would be a major problem.
So I think the answer is, we do not know, and it would be very
useful to know the answer to that.
31. You mean, we do not know whether the pyres
could be spreading the virus across the fields of Cumbria and
(Professor King) Let me answer that by saying it is
very unlikely. The virus is killed at relatively low temperatures,
so I contrast this with a prion, and this is why we do not burn
cattle in pyres like this that are over five years old, a prion
would survive and would get blown around. The virus, a few hot
summer days would probably be enough to dampen down this epidemic
very substantially, three days of 40 degrees centigrade in Greece
was enough to turn off their epidemic. So the temperatures required
to kill off this virus are not high, it is just over 40 degrees.
32. You may not want to address this question,
Professor King, because you said you really have not had time
to think about it already, but it is whether you feel that the
lessons from BSE have been learned, in the manner in which we
have gone about coping with foot and mouth, and whether you think
there are any lessons to be learned in the future, in relation
to the operation of the scientific advisory system? If you do
not want to answer it, or you can only answer it superficially,
perhaps, when you do have an opportunity to think about this,
you might like to let the Clerk know?
(Professor King) I think the very quick answer to
both those questions is yes. Within the FMD Science Group I have
just described, I think we have operated fairly closely to the
Government's own response to the Phillips Commission reports and
the guidelines, and all of that was based on lessons learned from
33. But you were not brought in until several
weeks after the start; so that is not really a satisfactory answer,
(Professor King) If I move on to the second question,
I think there will be very, very important lessons to be learned
when we go back and analyse this epidemic, lessons to be learned
about the other point you made, sheep movement, animal movement,
what our approach is to the inoculation of animals, the use of
vaccination, there are all sorts of important lessons to be learned
once it is all over.
34. Just further to that, really. Typically,
government departments take a great number of decisions involving
economists at absolutely every stage, and the Treasury gets its
fingers into everything. While at the same time, just to follow
through what Dr Jones was saying, it seems as if scientists, as
it were, wait in the wings, not being asked for their advice,
and whether it is scientists like yourself, or environmental scientists,
or other people with expertise which will be extremely helpful,
they are kept just kind of completely in the wings, and then when
a crisis occurs then there is a real input of scientific expertise
to sort of governmental-decision-making. We have asked that the
scientific advisory system be revised, to make the operation of
scientific advice much more part of the system. Do you agree,
first of all, that that would be a change, and, secondly, that
that change would be desirable?
(Professor King) Yes, I do; again, yes to both of
those. If I could just say that the current state of science and
technology is such that I believe it is fair to say that we have
passed through a scientific revolution, where science is now able
to give us remarkably good information about very complex phenomena,
and I have only to say global warming, or the human genome, you
know, the complexities that scientists are now being able to deal
with is quite astonishing. And, of course, this is related to
information technology, the development of computers, which is
enabling us to handle these vast systems of complexity, but with
a tremendous degree of quantitative understanding. So this is
a big breakthrough, and I do not think that the breakthrough has
yet got to the point that you are asking your question about,
which is being able to use that tremendous capability to assist
Government and policy-makers in the best possible way. I do not
think it has happened yet, and I think we are a little distance
away from that. If there is one thing, if I can somehow bend this
question back to foot and mouth, I think if there is one lesson
I would hope to be learned from the foot and mouth it would be
precisely that science can inform policy-makers, would it be a
poor joke to say, on the hoof.
35. Yes; but that is all consolidated in a document
called `Guidelines 2000Scientific Advice and Policy Making',
and, presumably, you are going to be doing a report, your next
report, on that, which is going to incorporate some of the foot
and mouth expertise, or lessons from foot and mouth, whatever.
Presumably your next report then is going to be a very radical
one indeed, in terms of departing from previous nostrums about
the relationship between science and Government?
(Professor King) Actually, I think Guidelines 2000
is rather a good document, and I am not sure that I am thinking
of a radical change to that. I think where change is needed is
in the scientific capabilities within Government Departments.
I think this is where my attention is going to be focused. I would
like to see some kind of review system that is capable of picking
up the real demands that ought to be placed on scientists in Government
Departments, the capabilities that could be transforming the work
of those Departments, and the competencies of the scientific civil
servants within those Departments. I think we need detailed reviews,
also we need to develop a new methodology for providing the scientific
civil servants with proper motivation actually to achieve what
I have just described. Probably also it means that we need more
mobility of scientists; we have lost a large number of previously
Government research laboratories, that have been outsourced. Chairman,
just as with any industry, if you outsource all of your research
and you lose also the scientists who are capable of understanding
what is being done externally, you no longer know what questions
you can ask and nor do you know who you can turn to, and I do
think that is a problem.
36. Would you agree that that is particularly
significant in information technology, where Government commissioning
systems seem to have a lamentable lack of expertise?
(Professor King) I think it is, but also, if I can
turn that around, the opportunities in information technology
are there and are not being exploited, the opportunities in information
management, intelligent management of information, which is a
very exciting research area at the moment, are simply not being
37. Professor King, from time to time, in this
Committee, we have debated where the Office of Science and Technology
should be located, whether it should be in the Cabinet Office,
or DTI, or Department for Education, or wherever, but I would
like to reflect at the moment not so much on where the Office
of Science and Technology should be but where the Chief Scientific
Adviser should be within the structure, and we know that one of
your roles is to be Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister and
we understand that you have a separate base in the Cabinet Office.
How often do you meet the Prime Minister, and how much of your
time do you spend in the Cabinet Office role?
(Professor King) Because we are in unusual times,
with the foot and mouth epidemic, the answer to the question how
often do I meet the Prime Minister probably is not going to be
sustainable over the coming time. But certainly I have been seeing
the Prime Minister three or four times a week, at least, over
the last six weeks, so it has been very frequent. I have been
in and out of No.10 very frequently.
38. But when you had the handover from Sir Robert
May, he would have given you an idea how often, in normal times,
you would see the Prime Minister?
(Professor King) It would be more like once a month,
39. And how much of his time and your time,
in your very early days, did you spend in the Cabinet Office role;
is it half, or is it 20 per cent?
(Professor King) I think really it is too early for
me to judge the answer to that question. I think that the work,
as it divides itself along the lines you are suggesting, Chief
Scientific Adviser as against Head of the Office of Science and
Technology, as I see it, is predominantly science in Government,
international-related. But it is difficult to extract from that,
for example, the Foresight programme and the Link programme; and,
of course, I am pleased to say this, the overlap is very strong
between the various parts of the work, and, of course, the science