Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 5 of Session 2002-03, dated 14 March 2003

Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that some aspects of the handling of the Foot and Mouth outbreak were inexcusable. 

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 5th Report of this Session on the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease.  The cost of the outbreak to the public sector was £3,030 million, over 2,000 premises were infected and by the time the disease had been eradicated some 6 million animals had been slaughtered.  The cost to the private sector is estimated at over £5 billion.  Tourism and supporting industries suffered the largest financial impact, losing revenues of between £4.5 billion and £5.4 billion.  Agriculture, the food chain and supporting services incurred net costs after compensation of £0.6 billion.  The Committee looked at: contingency planning for a possible outbreak of foot and mouth disease; the handling of the outbreak; and controlling the costs of the outbreak.

The Committee's main conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

The Department based its contingency plans for foot and mouth disease on the assumption that up to ten premises would be infected.  In the event, however, at least 57 premises were infected by the time the first case was diagnosed.  The plans did not consider any other scenarios, such as a worst case scenario or one based on the last big outbreak in 1967-68.  Future plans should be based on an analysis of risks associated with foot and mouth disease and should incorporate a range of assumptions about the nature, size and spread of an outbreak, including a worst case scenario.

The Department's contingency plans were directed solely at the agriculture industry.  Yet the tourism industry suffered much more than any sector and incurred some £5 billion of losses.  Contingency plans should not only address farming but also the difficulties likely to be experienced by other industries.  Stakeholders in affected industries should be fully consulted about contingency plans; and should participate in the simulation exercises carried out to test them.

Emergency vaccination was not used during the 2001 outbreak.  The Government has announced that the option of vaccination would nevertheless form part of any future strategy for the control of foot and mouth disease.  We cannot have a situation again where there is no clear-cut policy on whether and when vaccination is used.  The Department's plans on vaccination should be clear and set out the circumstances and factors that would determine when vaccination would be adopted.  The plans should be made known and explained to all relevant parties, including farmers, vets, and representatives of the food industry.

The Department could have done many things differently.  For example, it should have imposed a national movement ban from the first day; it should have kept the countryside open and not allowed the blanket closure of footpaths for such a long time; it should have brought senior administrators in earlier to take charge of local disease control; and it should have not disposed of carcasses on mass funeral pyres; but we recognise that we say these things with the benefit of hindsight.  These and other lessons need to be incorporated in the Department's plans and processes for any future outbreak of infectious animal disease.  The armed services were called in three weeks after the start of the outbreak and made an important contribution to eradicating the disease. One of the lessons from the 1967-68 outbreak was that the earlier the military can be called in the greater their impact will be.  The lessons from the value of calling in the armed forces early should have been remembered from the 1967-68 outbreak.  But it seems to have fallen out of the collective memory of the Department.  Working closely with the Ministry of Defence, the Department should define the military's role and identify the tasks it would carry out in any future outbreak. There should be clear trigger points as to when military support is requested and brought into effect.

Farmers received nearly £1,400 million in compensation and other payments for their slaughtered animals.  The assessed values of animals rose threefold during the crisis, and with no functioning markets, the Department lacked a clear frame of reference to assess or influence the valuations against which compensation was paid.  The Department allowed potential recipients of compensation to select and appoint the valuers.  In future, systems of compensation to farmers for slaughtered animals need to give firmer control over the amounts paid.  The Department needs better benchmarks for determining the rates paid for animals when markets are suspended; and it should not allow potential recipients of compensation to select and appoint the valuers.

The total bill for measures to deal with the epidemic is expected to reach nearly £1,300 million by the time all claims are settled.  The Department was in a weak negotiating position and had to pay a premium to get things done at maximum possible speed.  The Department should negotiate pre-arranged rates and fees for goods and services, which could be brought quickly into use in the event of a future outbreak.  Claw-back arrangements should be in place to prevent firms making excessive profits at the Department's expense. A list of approved contractors should be drawn up, and kept up to date, and the capabilities of firms to carry out contracted tasks should be tested in simulation exercises.

In summary, many of the Department's difficulties in handling the outbreak reflect a narrow outlook and lack of contextual awareness.  The tendency to focus on farming interests, important as these are, needs to be complemented by greater recognition of wider rural and national concerns.  The Department also needs to build stronger and more confident partnerships with other relevant bodies in both the public and private sectors, so as to make better use of their expertise and resources.  Longstanding attitudes are in need of reform, and the Department's new development programme for senior managers will need to be radical if the necessary change of outlook is to be achieved.

Mr Leigh said today:  "It would be all-too-easy to take cheap shots by listing all the things the Department   should have done differently. We must recognise that it was a crisis situation and decisions had to be taken immediately. But some aspects of the disease's handling remain inexcusable, such as the absence of a vaccination policy and the failure to bring in the military at an earlier stage."