Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



Mr Breed

  60. Do you accept the fact that the contingency plan taken out of filing cabinet in the beginning part of February proved to be wholly inadequate?

  (Mr Scudamore) That was, so to speak, a threefold plan. First of all, there was the national contingency plan which we submitted to Brussels which really is a framework. Secondly, we have our instructions to staff which are called an inset which cover all the foot and mouth disease, and I believe the contingency plan and the instructions were put in the House following a number of PQs earlier this year, so that was available. The instructions to staff were dated 2000 and they are constantly updated and they have been updated regularly since the beginning of this outbreak because what we have is a standard instruction that we issue emergency instructions when we want to change the basic policy, so those were issued right the way through. So we did have a contingency plan. The contingency plan was based on certain scenarios, and I think I mentioned in a previous meeting that we were looking to have ten outbreaks and the plan was based on that. The plan actually worked in a lot of counties so in a lot of counties, Leicestershire, Wiltshire, Northamptonshire, the disease was controlled very quickly with very little spread so the plan did work in the circumstances the plan was developed for. Regarding the future, one of the lessons is that this needs to be a national contingency plan; we do currently have a stakeholder group which comprises farmers, vets, retail, everybody in the industry who has an interest in foot and mouth disease, and that group meets every Friday or has done more or less since the beginning of the outbreak. I think what we need to do is develop a nationally agreed contingency plan that everybody sees and contributes to, and that we could use in the future.

Mr Drew

  61. Can I just take you back quickly to the idea of local inquiries? There are two members from Gloucestershire here and we would not have been against local inquiries. What worries me about the non appearance of DEFRA is that, if Devon is anything to go by, it is skewing the local inquiry and I have to say they have missed the key points and it would worry me that, if we get such inquiries taking place, you are going to get the wrong questions being asked and possibly ending up with the wrong answers. Is it possible that that is something that you would, even if you do not take part in the inquiry, have a comment on?
  (Mr Scudamore) I think we agreed that we would respond to inquiries and there was a request from Devon for information that one of the ministers replied to and I think that is attached to Devon inquiry report, so we would respond to the inquiry along the lines that we responded to the Devon one. I think if questions are raised, written responses would be provided.

Diana Organ

  62. Can I add that if we do secure a local inquiry from Gloucestershire I do hope that DEFRA does make itself available for the same reasons David has given. You were under pressure with resources which may be one reason why there were allegations of insensitivity on the part of MAFF officials—under pressure it is very difficult to work. Could you say something about the size of the state veterinary service? At the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in February, how sizeable was it throughout England and what size do you think the state veterinary service needs to be to be able to provide an adequate role when outbreaks like classic swine fever or foot and mouth or anything else occurs, and how does this correspond with the size the state vet service may have been ten years ago?
  (Mr Scudamore) That is an interesting question. I think the answer is very difficult because there are three scenarios. Do you establish a state veterinary service to deal with peacetime? Do you establish one to deal with a few outbreaks, or do you establish one to deal with a lot of outbreaks? That is one of the questions that needs to be resolved. To answer the detail of your question, at the beginning of this outbreak we had 23 animal health divisional offices based in England, Wales and Scotland, and we had around about 421 veterinary people, of which 304 were in the veterinary service and 117 were TVIs. So we were operating from 23 offices with round about 300 permanent veterinary officials and round about 117 TVIs. That was where we were operating then. If we go back a number of years, for example to 1994, we had 39 animal health offices and round about the same number of vets. If you go back even further, we ran with about 60 animal health offices with not that many more vets. We had full time veterinary officers in 1982, there were round about 260-270. Our full time veterinary officers complements are round about 220/230.

  63. So you are saying that there has been a running down of the state veterinary service over the years. Could you tell us how many vets were actually employed on a full time equivalent at the height of the foot and mouth disease if we take, say, 16 April when we had our largest number of outbreaks recorded on any one day?
  (Mr Scudamore) By about mid-April the total vet resource was about 1635. That would include TVIs, overseas vets and our own full-time staff. Coming back on the running down of the vet service, if we look at the state vet service in 1967 which is quite easy to refer back to, that was a service that dealt with foot and mouth every year prior to that. It was a service that was eradicating brucellosis and that was beginning to deal with tuberculosis and one of the questions is what size of service do you have to deal with the current work, and if you have too many people and not enough work they all leave, so the balance between the number of veterinary staff and the number of offices is quite difficult and must be linked to the amount of work you have. The two deficiencies we had were the number of veterinary managers and the number of field vets, and we are looking to see whether we can develop some arrangement with the veterinary profession where we have people to come in to manage if we need them and others trained to come in if they are required. The full time state veterinary service, however, has to be a service that can deal with its current workload and expand up slightly to deal with the problem but have the facility to expand very rapidly if it needs to.

  64. But we had a problem in this outbreak that we could not get enough vets to do the work because the culling had to be done by vets, and one of the problems was where many of the local farmers were saying there was a problem with insensitivity and belligerence is you maybe had a vet that did not speak the same language or a vet that might have been a small animal vet who had never seen in a sheep's mouth let alone looked at foot and mouth disease, and they are real problems when you are trying to get co-operation and confidence of local farmers into the system and the policy. Would you agree with that?
  (Mr Scudamore) Not necessarily. I think we employed a lot of vets and a lot of the small animal vets are excellent and they did a very good job. We had to call on every veterinary resource we could find. We had as many vets as we could find in the country because you have to remember that the large animal vets who did not come and work for us had their own practices and animals to look after, so we had as many from large animal practices as we could get; a lot of small animal vets who assisted and they did a very good job; we had vets from universities and overseas; we had a lot of people coming in from America and Australia, so we had a lot of vets working for us and we more or less got as many as we could find to do the job.


  65. Can I just say that in my constituency the prime need is for veterinary officers to be integrated much more effectively into the overall structure because you had vets managing vets and that did not work. They are not trained to do that, they are not managers, and they need to be integrated more effectively into the main stream. Getting the integrated teams together perhaps took longer than it ought. Secondly, there was a shortage of junior vets so vets were doing a lot of jobs which they were over-qualified to do, so there was a shortage in the lower tier.
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes, but we had to dissect out what the vets were doing and then change what they were doing. So the vets will do the clinical diagnosis, the welfare and the slaughter; other people will do the valuations and all the other work, and we are doing that now. Also we have to review what we should use the vet staff to do in the future.

Diana Organ

  66. Because it was not necessary for the vets to do the actual culling, the slaughter, was it?
  (Mr Scudamore) There was a question about supervision of culling with respect to welfare that was also an issue so we did need a veterinary input into all of that, in terms of the supervision of the culling and the slaughter.
  (Mr Hathaway) What we did have to do very quickly at the start of the outbreak was to bring in non vets and extra administrative and logistical support to do the jobs that vets were doing so as to release the vets to concentrate on veterinary work, and to set up the new infrastructure in so many different parts of the country at the same time in order to liberate the vets for the veterinary work was a major undertaking across government.

Mr Todd

  67. Just taking us back briefly to one element which relates to cross-border movement of livestock, we did have a story right at the start of the outbreak that the French had detected foot and mouth antibodies in sheep which had been imported into France from the UK earlier in February. At the time the Agriculture Committee last asked about this there seemed to be some uncertainty as to whether the French had produced any evidence for that statement or not. Has anything emerged about that?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes. We investigated that with the French veterinary authorities and we had a letter back saying that the results were negative. They did one test that gave positive results and when they re-checked and did another test it gave negative results. There is no indication at all that the sheep that went out to France prior to the 20 February had any antibodies in them at all.

  68. So that puts one of the myths to bed of quite where this disease might have been, because certainly there was a view that it was endemic in at least part of the sheep population before it was at Heddon-on-the-Wall.
  (Mr Scudamore) With your permission, Mr Chairman, may I comment on the origin because there have been lots of myths around. The French positive sheep was a negative sheep. There were some articles recently about the Canadians saying we had foot and mouth disease in October/November and I have checked with the chief Canadian veterinary officer and that is untrue. There are all the stories about ordering up disinfectant and sleepers, all of which were part of our normal contingency planning, so all of those myths, when you check them out, there is nothing that shows that the disease was any older than that we found in Northumberland from early February. There is no evidence at all of that.

  69. It is good that you have had an opportunity to make that clear. Turning to the movement restrictions that both are in place and also were suggested, you will notice that in the Devon inquiry it was rather strangely written but I think they indicated a support for a 20 or 21 day standstill on stock movements. Do you actually believe that would be beneficial?
  (Mr Scudamore) It is an issue that has been under consultation. It has already existed in the pig flock. We have already had that in pigs and the reason for having a 21-day rule is if animals move on to the farm and they are incubating disease you would detect that before the animals move off, so the advantage of it, if animals were incubating disease and they move, is it gives you a time in which the disease can develop, you can put in place controls and you can prevent the onward moving. It also stops this rapid movement of sheep on to farms and off farms so there are benefits in having a 21-day rule and, from a strictly veterinary point of view, a standstill like that would be helpful, but there are also economic downsides in an industry which moves animals on and off. For example, a farmer might buy pedigree rams and might want to sell pedigree ewes next week, so there are a lot off issues involved which are not strictly veterinary. The 21-day rule is in place now as part of the autumn movements; we are going to be consulting on what movements we have in the spring; I think from a veterinary point of view the 21-day rule will need to remain but that, again, is open to discussion, and I think the question of the long term controls is one that there has to be a national debate about as to what is the best method of controlling diseases like this if they occur. We need to look at the whole range of how do we prevent disease spreading, how do we minimise the spread, and how do we stop it exploding out like it has done in this case.

David Taylor

  70. Would it be helpful if that 21-day standstill to which you have referred was extended to markets on a permanent basis as well as on to farm holdings?
  (Mr Scudamore) I think the question on markets is how often the markets can be held and what cleaning and disinfection takes place between them. There are a number of issues with markets in terms of mixing animals and residual contamination of the market so all of these need to be looked at. What we want to do is learn the lessons from this outbreak which the Royal Society will be doing to see what control measures will be needed to prevent the rapid spread of disease, and to try and restrict it to smaller areas. Also on the 21-day rule with the pig industry there was a strict 21 day rule that applied but as the biosecurity in the industry developed the 21 day rule was relaxed for certain categories. For example, if people were in a pyramid and they moved and had security then the 21-day rule was not triggered.

Mr Todd

  71. Your advice from a veterinary standpoint, therefore, is that a 21-day movement restriction should be adopted?
  (Mr Scudamore) It is beneficial in controlling and restricting spread of disease, but that advice has to be countered with all the other issues.

  72. One of the other difficulties certainly putting together your maps that you went through with us at the start is tracing movements of sheep. They were the principal carriers in this particular case. Do you believe that movements, registration and recording could be substantially improved to the benefit of controls or potential controls on the spread of disease?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes. I think identification and traceability of susceptible species is critical to rapid control of disease. With cattle we already have that with ear-tagging and the cattle tracing system. The difficulty with sheep is the sheer numbers and how they move, and whether the tags remain there. What we have been developing with the national scrapie plan is the use of electronic identification, and I do not think there is any doubt in the long run that that is the method we will have to look at because you can scan animals and identify them very quickly. The question really is, in the interim period between now and when electronic systems are in place, what mechanism we have for identifying and tracing sheep and what is the best method of doing it.

  73. You have asked the question —
  (Mr Scudamore) Well, there are lots of questions. I think this is something that the science review would look at but the ear-tagging of sheep is already a requirement so if animals leave a flock of origin they have to be ear-tagged to identify the flock of origin. The real question is whether we put in place individual identification of sheep. We will need to discuss with a lot of people because there are a lot of issues here. It is not just animal health but also public health, food safety, traceability of carcases and animals, so it is much broader than just animal health and it is something we need to take forward jointly with other organisations. At the moment, however, the sheep have to be identified with the flock of origin when they leave that flock. The question is how we individually identify them, and should we.

  74. There was a 48 or 72 hour delay between the first outbreak being identified and movement restrictions being put in place. I cannot remember—was it two or three days?
  (Mr Scudamore) We confirmed on the 20th and put the movement restrictions on the 23rd. Two to three days.
  (Mr Hathaway) That is true if one is talking about movement restrictions over the whole of Great Britain. Whenever you find even a suspect case of foot and mouth there is a local movement restriction that goes on absolutely immediately.

  75. Sure. So there was a restriction in Essex, for example, straight away but not a national restriction for 72 hours or thereabouts.
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes.

  76. Your map on which you showed when the movements had taken place indicated that actually that delay did have a material effect and that quite a large number of movements took place in that critical window of time—not enough to have prevented a widespread outbreak but certainly making the task harder. What made you not introduce a national restriction at that point?
  (Mr Scudamore) There are a number of issues there. The first is we had the Essex outbreak in pigs and we were tracing the pig movements into the abattoir to Buckingham and York and the Isle of Wight. That is all we had to go on. We were then tracing movements of other pigs which had gone into the abattoir and at that stage we only had one outbreak in Essex. To put in a national movement control would be very draconian and would involve stopping all movements of all animals anywhere. At that time we believed we would put the local movement restriction on and we would continue the tracing. We had to do 600 tracings from the abattoir and we gave priority to all the swill plants in the tracing, and we got back to Heddon-on-the-Wall on the 22nd in the evening and confirmed it on the 23rd, and at that stage all we had to go on were the cases I have shown you, and my recommendation at that stage was that we needed to put a national control measure on the whole of the country to stop all movements until we could find out what the problem was. At that particular stage we thought we had a problem with pigs because all the outbreaks we had were pigs. There was no indication then that we had a sheep problem.

  77. It is immensely easy to do all this with hindsight, but did not the existence of the virus in pigs immediately prompt you regarding the plumes and the possible impact on other livestock near to an infected pig farm? It is easy for me to say now but would that not seem logical?
  (Mr Scudamore) We were working completely in the dark at this stage. When we picked up these pigs in the abattoir we did not have any indication as to where it was or what had been happening. We went back to the three farms on the 20th and 21st and there was no disease in those at all, so what we had was an outbreak which had just occurred out of the blue with no indication anywhere that anything else in the country was involved.

  78. Most of us know that of the various species that could have foot and mouth the impact on pigs is much more profound in terms of the potential spread of the virus to other species and beyond. I am just puzzled that that did not immediately set off an alarm bell.
  (Mr Hathaway) Based on my recollection of those dates, we were in touch with the Met Office about the issue of plumes and when we put the 10 km zone, so-called, around the early Essex cases, the shape and size of that was actually drawn up taking account of Met Office advice in relation to plumes.

  79. So in other words the local restriction was put in place with the possibility of a plume. Since the outbreak in Essex did not originate—logically probably would not have originated—in Essex, being from a movement from somewhere else, because it was in an abattoir, did not this prompt some further thought as to risk?
  (Mr Hathaway) It did. I think Jim has explained that 600 tracings took place and, as soon as we found anything as regards those tracings, local controls go on but when we found the one in Northumberland two days later the national control went on.
  (Mr Scudamore) There was a lot of criticism at the time that we had stopped all movements. The important issue I think is, looking at those plans and maps, the question for the future is if we get one outbreak of foot and mouth disease do we stop all movements in the whole of the country immediately? That is quite a draconian measure when you think of the number of animals that are moving, so I think again it is another issue that needs to be discussed.

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