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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 351 - 359)



  Q351  Chairman: Thank you, Sir David, for coming at short notice to talk to us. It was something of a surprise to us that you were going to produce an additional blockbuster report to add to the growing mountain of commentary in this area. Nonetheless, it is an important document. We are grateful to you for making yourself available so quickly for some public scrutiny of what you have said. I gather that you wanted to make a short presentation to the committee on your findings. In that context, if you are able to do it in five minutes, we would be grateful if you could condense your work into such a short time space, but we are up against the clock. If you would like to give us a summary, that would be a good way to start.

  Sir David King: Chairman, I am going to start by just explaining my role as Chief Scientific Adviser. It is to provide independent advice to government, particularly on important issues where science is concerned. It is customary for members of the Cabinet to contact me for advice on a whole range of issues, and that is what I have been doing for the last seven years. I give you one example where I brought in the entire team who had been working for seven or eight years, and this was the question of scrapie in sheep and whether or not there was BSE in those animals. Those people had been deeply involved in that for seven or eight years. I questioned them for a day and during that process discovered that no DNA test had been conducted on the sample they had received. When I sent that out for testing, we discovered they had been testing the wrong barrel of sheep brains, and it turned out that they had been testing bovine and not ovine material. Let me suggest that that was a critically important outcome of my challenging process. I am just giving you that one example. Following publication of the ISG report, I was approached by the Secretary of State and agreed with him that I would undertake a short objective assessment of the key scientific issues in relation to the role that badger removal could play in controlling and reducing levels of TB in cattle in England. I want to stress that I was asked to make comment on scientific issues. My brief did not extend to economic or other practical issues. I invited five experts to help me assess the relevant scientific evidence. They are all very well respected; many of them have been working all their lives on TB in animals. I was confident that I had a good group of people, particularly covering badger ecology, epidemiology and immunology of TB. Together we reviewed the evidence. They had the report for some weeks before we met. We met for a period from 9 a.m. through till the end of that day. I wanted them to sleep on it, so we met again for two hours the next morning. Some of the members were present for some of the time. The Australian member of the committee was 12 hours out of phase with us and so we lost him around midnight Australian time, but he was there the next morning. I am very glad that one of the members of that group, Professor Mark Woolhouse, is here. He is from the Centre for Infectious Diseases in Edinburgh. He is an epidemiologist with whom I have worked previously. The main evidence base to which we referred was of course the ISG final report and the results from the RBCT proactive trials. This report was the culmination of nearly 10 years of work by the ISG on cattle TB. I congratulate John Bourne and the group for producing an excellent and comprehensive report, which adds enormously to the scientific evidence about TB in cattle and the role that badgers play in the spread of the disease. The conclusions in my report are not very different from those that the ISG reached, particularly in terms of the scientific content of their report. Let me quote from a recent publication, The International Journal of Infectious Diseases that has just appeared but was submitted on 3 April this year. Three of the authors are sitting behind me, so it is by John Bourne, Christl Donnelly and others. I quote directly: "Results confirmed that badger culling is only likely to be beneficial if conducted systematically over large areas and sustained over several years." I quote that because I want to indicate that I agree with the ISG that badgers are a continuing source of infection for cattle and vice versa. The ISG figures show that badgers could account for up to 40% of cattle breakdown in some areas but I do not agree that their data supports a conclusion that badger culling cannot contribute to the control of TB in cattle in Britain. As pointed out in the ISG report, culling over large areas and over a significant period of time would be effective. I am drawing on the information in that report, Chairman. So the conclusions that I draw from the data—I say "I draw", I am naming my science panel but nevertheless I take the responsibility for the conclusions—is that badger removal alongside cattle controls would very likely play an important role in controlling TB in cattle in those areas where there is a consistently high level of TB in cattle. I realise that I am not going to be able to give you the body of what I was going to say, but let me leap to the conclusion. Although the scientific evidence is not as clear-cut as one would like, I feel that more research would have added to a reduction in the uncertainties, but with the incidence of TB in cattle doubling every four and a half years and extending over the country, now is the time to stop this upward trend. It has a very important impact on our farming community. Britain's biggest endemic animal health issue is TB in cattle. In my view, the data from the ISG report would lead to the clear conclusion that badger removal alongside cattle measures would make a significant contribution to the control of cattle TB in those areas where it is highly persistent. Removal must be done effectively over large areas and over a sustained period of time. That is the basis, the meat, of that letter that I have sent to the Secretary of State.

  Q352  Chairman: Just for the record, when specifically did David Miliband ask you to undertake this work?

  Sir David King: The publication of the ISG report was 18 June. It was in that week.

  Q353  Chairman: Did he write some formal terms of reference?

  Sir David King: The terms of reference were that I should base my advice on the science.

  Q354  Chairman: Did he define the parameters of your work?

  Sir David King: Beyond that, no; he left it to me to determine how I would operate, so the calling of that small group of scientists was my normal method of operation in such a circumstance.

  Q355  Chairman: Your work has been solely, if you like, discussion and paper-based. You have not actually gone out and looked at any of the reality of what you are commenting about on the ground?

  Sir David King: Our work was a commentary on a very detailed piece of work. As I say, our conclusions are based around that piece of work, but I would want to add that the experts that helped me on this report had all been engaged over a long period of time on the issue of TB in cattle.

  Q356  Mr Drew: You heard my earlier exchange with the ISG group on paragraph 24, so I will not rehearse that. Can I take you to paragraph 14 in your report and the last sentence? Again I am paraphrasing and pick me up if I am in any way misinterpreting the evidence. What you are basically saying is that where there is a higher incidence of badgers, you can map that out in terms of a higher incidence of bovine TB in cattle. Can you quote scientific evidence to prove that? Can you also refer to the evidence from the RTA work that has been going on for a long period of time, which actually was completely confusing and did not really in any way prove that there were badger hot spots if you were to take the relationship between the level of TB in badgers, which was a steady 15 to 17% , compared to the areas where there is a much higher level of incidence of TB in cattle? In a sense, this is the scientific rationale on which you are basing your findings.

  Sir David King: I do not think there is any disagreement on the final part of that sentence that there is a good indication of a wildlife reservoir of TB infection.

  Q357  Mr Drew: That is not the problem. There is a problem with the densities of badgers because from my understanding, having been there on a number of occasions, the Woodchester Project has categorically proven that where there is a high number of badgers there is no greater incidence of bovine TB in cattle.

   Professor Woolhouse: Could I comment on that? There clearly is a very complicated relationship between badger density and the level of infection in badgers. The Independent Scientific Group's work has been very important in trying to elucidate that relationship. The fact that that relationship is complicated and perhaps not a simple linear one as you are implying certainly does not mean there is not a link or an association which is very clear here between the level of infection or the infection of badgers and infection in cattle. Indeed the ISG's other group in a paper by Rosie Woodroffe published in the PNAS a few years ago—and she can comment in a few minutes on that—would support that association. What we have been arguing about for decades of course is in which direction does the actual link go. I do not think there is any doubt about the association.

  Q358  Mr Drew: You are happy to have this paper peer reviewed in the due course of time to clarify some of those issues in terms of the statements you have made?

  Professor Woolhouse: Whatever mechanism is felt appropriate for reviewing that, including of course a reply from the ISG.

  Q359  Mr Williams: You have told us that having got together your group of experts, you had a meeting over one day and then another meeting the next morning, and one of your colleagues was contributing over a phone line. Do you think that is a satisfactory way of conducting what is a very important piece of work or should it have been given more opportunity for consideration?

  Sir David King: Let me once again explain that the members of that group had the ISG report for at least three weeks before we met and, more importantly, the members of that group were very much aware of the papers that had been published from the work that has already been referred to by John Bourne, the papers that had been published over the period of the work itself. It is not as if the work of the report was new to the people who were helping to advise me on this. During that three-week period, my office received from those experts their own comments on the ISG report. Prior to the meeting, they were working on it with my own team to see that we made the best possible use of that full day. I have to say it was a very full day. We carried right through over dinner that evening and, as I say, met again for two hours the next morning. I think that, given that the Secretary of State had asked me for a brief commentary, that was probably what was needed.

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