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Under the microscope

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Laura Kuenssberg | 16:54 UK time, Monday, 6 August 2007

So the holidays haven't happened. In contrast to the sleepy Westminster of Friday morning, today has been a whirl of activity. Gordon Brown has now cancelled his Dorset holiday. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn returned early from his. David Cameron has delayed his departure. And chief vet Debby Reynolds has just finished a press conference.

The government knows the way it handles the outbreak of foot and mouth disease will be put under the microscope. And Gordon Brown no doubt has bad memories of the criticism the government's handling of foot and mouth attracted in 2001.

So there's activity almost everywhere you look. The prime minister meeting farmers' leaders this morning, and farmers and disease experts in Surrey. The government's emergency committee, Cobra, meeting twice daily since Friday night. David Cameron too meeting representatives from the National Farmers' Union. And of course, people at Pirbright holding their breath for a verdict on whether either of the labs there were the source.

Behind the scenes, Downing Street sources are guiding journalists to focus on Merial, the private lab. I'm told that's where large stocks of vaccine were produced in mid-July. But the firm say they have not found any potential breaches. And the investigations are not complete. So there is still the very real possibility it could have come from the government funded Institute of Animal Health (IAH) next door. Evidence to MPs in both 2002 and 2006 suggested there were difficulties with cash - they said last November they'd been dealing with real term cuts in their funding from Defra.

It does not follow automatically that a breach of biosecurity was therefore more likely. The IAH - just like Merial - say they have all the correct biosecurity measures in place. And Hilary Benn says there have been improvements since then. But it does suggests people at the IAH were working under pressures. Could it be that a government funded lab, that's meant to combat foot and mouth, was the source of the infection? We don't know. And we may never know. I'm told by an official that the scientific tests expected on Gordon Brown's desk tomorrow may not be 100% conclusive.

But what is certain is that if the government lab ends up being confirmed as the source, ministers will face the anger of the country's farmers and thousands of others who live in the countryside whose livelihoods are being affected. On top of stamping out this disease, the government is hoping the source will not be traced back to its own facility.



Wasn't it interesting how Brown went away AFTER the outbreak was reported to DEFRA, stayed away on while the testing, culling, and exclusion zoning happened, and then came back the next day in a blaze of 'Gordon rushes home' headlines.

It's like with the floods all spin, no substance.

  • 2.
  • At 06:19 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • James Drew wrote:

Thank goodness this outbreak looks like it has been brought under control, thanks largely to vigilance on behalf of the farmer. I am a vet who was heavily involved in the 2001 epidemic, working in the north of England at the disease's epicentre. I was so shocked by the appalling mismanagement and the human and animal suffering involved that I spent the next five years writing a 'fictional' novel documenting the events. Anybody who would like to know exactly what happened and what it was really like to be there should check out 'Following Orders' by James Drew on Amazon.

  • 3.
  • At 06:21 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Michael Orton wrote:

Ralph, post 1, what would have the point have been in the PM rushing back sooner? He could wait for the report just as well in Devon as anywhere else. The initial stages are being dealt with by the people responsible. The PM's attention is not required until policy decisions must be taken and that ought to wait until information on what happened and what needs to change is available.

I'm more worried about the report that Downing Street are trying to spin the blame on to the Merial lab. We need an impartial investigation to find the real source and fix the real problem. That is far more important than saving a politician's face.

  • 4.
  • At 06:22 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Alex wrote:


You're kidding right?

Let me get this straight, he goes away on Friday, the disease is confirmed Friday night, and by Saturday he's back chairing a Cobra meeting on how to deal with it. And that's all spin no substance? These spin accusations are getting ridiculous!

  • 5.
  • At 07:05 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:


Please can you expand on what you mean by "Behind the scenes, Downing Street sources are guiding journalists to focus on Merial, the private lab... etc"

It seems strange to me that government sources are trying to point the finger before the facts are revealed. Perhaps 'Spinning' Labour has not changed its spots under Gordon Brown!

  • 6.
  • At 07:19 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Charles E Hardwidge wrote:

A factual piece but it didn't draw out the procedure versus plant issues, or a vaccination programme versus farming industry opposition. If Britain uses culling as a means of dealing with foot and mouth and does things on the cheap then things like this happen. Procedures are in place and it's dealt with. Until next time.

The underlying problem is big business throwing its weight around like a feudal lord, government that's too quick to whitewash, and farmers who don't have much entrepreneurial spirit, capital, or organisation. Well, that's the British mindset.

Trimming the power of big business, making government more accountable, and developing the grassroots is a simple thing. If there is any anger it's caused by hurt, and removing the source of the pain seems like the smart to do. And that's the Zen Buddhist mindset.

Want a better country? Be better people.

  • 7.
  • At 07:53 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

Wonder why no-one examines the science in the media;are you all too ignorant?

Any leak from a laboratory would almost certainly be from faulty ventilation-witness the recent Cadbury salmonella affair. Foot & Mouth is also usually air-borne.

Therefore, any air-propelled leak, as it were, would have been dispersed over a substantial area. Which means, unless further cases are reported over that 30-mile radius where contact was not possible with the infected farm, you can FORGET lab leaks.

The flood possibility is alarmingly likely. Viruses can remain dormant in the soil for many years & if this area has not had the sort of deluge we recently had since prior to 1966/7 & the virus identified's emergence, there's why it's broken out again.

I can't remember if we incinerated corpses or just buried them in lime in 1967. Any one else recollect? If the latter, it would also account, possibly, for a non-eradicated original virus still being about.

Sorry, but you need to avoid turning this into a political issue. Leave that to David Cameron galumphing around county shows near the infected area-not the wisest move in the present circumstances.

  • 8.
  • At 07:55 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Charles E Hardwidge wrote:
I was so shocked by the appalling mismanagement and the human and animal suffering involved that I spent the next five years writing a 'fictional' novel documenting the events.

James, my primary interest is how people deal with things. Being negative and backwards looking is a primary cause of depression. Ghetto communities, failing companies, and preventable murders are all part of that picture. Examining failure is great but when better ways are discovered, implemented, and lead to better results, I think, that's something worth exploring.

There was a farm in the family during the 1967 outbreak and things were handled well back then. The 2001 situation was a mess, but it seems to be dealt with much better this time around. I really think people should focus on that. Instead of bringing the failures of yesterday into our minds, perhaps, you could update us with a new book.

Let me get this straight, he goes away on Friday, the disease is confirmed Friday night, and by Saturday he's back chairing a Cobra meeting on how to deal with it. And that's all spin no substance? These spin accusations are getting ridiculous!

I'm as tired of hearing about "spin" as I am about "anger". They're just labels being thrown around without much critical thinking. This isn't journalism or responsible comment. It's habitual and reactive. Can't say the instant response and follow the leader style looks good. Talking crap and kissing ass is "failed state" territory. And who really wants that?

The response of some people, soldiers serving in Afghanistan, and the personal story of a slaughterman involved in the 2001 outbreak have many similar points. Getting badly hung up on negatives and being unable to break out of the past is a real killer. A more can-do and flexible attitude can help turn life from a funeral dirge into a dance.

  • 9.
  • At 08:14 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Sean wrote:

"Want a better country? Be better people."
Now that has to be the biggest pile of buddhism I've ever seen, don't you have any control over yourself?

Buddhism is an oblivion cult dedicated to ending the cycle of life by surrendering all that is life, desire which leads to suffering. The tide goes out as well as in, buddha should have visited the seaside more and spent less of his time sitting under a tree surrounded by servants and minions. Bloody rich kids and their stupid notions.

First terror attack then record breaking flood then foot and mouse disease fiasco, seems Brown will be under constant scanner!

  • 11.
  • At 08:59 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Glenn Evans wrote:

All the talk is about the agricultural industry holding thier breath - I can tell you now, that the rural tourist is quaking in its boots. Any affected farmer will receive compensation for thier loss, as in 2001. The countryside b&bs, hotels, inns etc, received nothing. Livestock can be replaced and will envitabley be culled sooner or later and mainly for profit. Tourist operators can not replace the lost income unless real compensation is paid.

This government is completely detached from actual rural needs, unsurpirsing of a urban based socialist outlook. Our farmers have taken a hammering for years, fox hunting has been culled, our countryside is a managed playground and we're also expected to put up so called "renewable" energy sites (wind farms) right accross some of the last remaing natural landscapes. A lastling testominy for future Labour goverments.

  • 12.
  • At 09:14 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • A Russell wrote:

"Scientific tests expected on Gordon Brown's desk tomorrow may not be 100% conclusive".

Is Gordon Brown's desk also being tested for foot & mouth?

It must be silly season.

  • 13.
  • At 09:49 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Nick wrote:

And that's a lot of sentences that start improperly.

  • 14.
  • At 09:59 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • J.WESTERMAN wrote:

The feral media busy again.
whatever happened to news reporters?

  • 15.
  • At 10:03 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Edward Gillams MRCVS wrote:

Not all farmers who lost out financially were compensated. Farmers were only compensated for animals that were slaughtered. Thousands of other farmers suffered because of movement restrictions that are currently costing individuals millions of pounds a day and these farmers were not compensated last time and wont be this time.

Also the farmers that were compensated had their animals slaughtered. No one farms (ie actually works with the animals) purely for money and so money can never bring back what the individuals lost.

But I couldn't agree more with your second paragraph

Intrigued by the way you view F+M virus initially as purely air-bourne and ignore the possibility of a fomite or human source of leak, yet by the end you imply the DC could potentially risk worsening the spread... though that could be hot-air spread...
Also F+M virus is reasonably pathetic when it comes to lying dormant outside of a host animal.

Surely sales with peak again without such blatant pushing of a book that does happen to be very good...

  • 16.
  • At 10:34 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Charles E Hardwidge wrote:
Buddhism is an oblivion cult dedicated to ending the cycle of life by surrendering all that is life, desire which leads to suffering. The tide goes out as well as in, buddha should have visited the seaside more and spent less of his time sitting under a tree surrounded by servants and minions. Bloody rich kids and their stupid notions.

That's a Victorian fatalistic perspective, not Buddhism. It's more about correctness. Compare, for instance, the approaches to the 1967, 2001, and present day situations. The balance between policy and attitude, and the size of the "sweet spot" that flows from that is a useful consideration. As misinformed and fearful as people are, the response from farmers, authorities, and government has been quite sound. Perfect? No, but not unskilful.

The leader can benefit from being a centre of calm. Zen Buddhism is, merely, one way of developing that. Better is always possible, and by dropping stupid ideas and feelings, improvement can develop. Here, good teaching, support, and experience are helpful. Zen Buddhism encompasses this and a close equivalent is what some would call a "professional approach" or the "scientific method". And that sounds pretty life affirming and in touch to me.

  • 17.
  • At 11:00 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • James wrote:

And that's a lot of sentences that start improperly.

Post 13 - who died and made you the king of how to blog?

  • 18.
  • At 11:05 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Anonymous wrote:

You desperately need a proofreader for you blog!

  • 19.
  • At 11:05 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • gwenhwyfaer wrote:

Mr Hardwidge, you clearly have much to teach; but are you sure you have no more to learn?

  • 20.
  • At 11:13 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • drunken_skylark wrote:

Is it me? Or does Gordon Browns rise to office, bear more than a passing resemblence to the arrival of the 'pale horse rider' from the four horsemen of the apocalypse?

Just like the biblical jockey, Gordon seems to be emanating pestilence and disease, and we have been swamped by floods the like of which we have never seen before!

All we are missing now, is a plague of locusts, but even that age old prophesy seems to be coming true (though not quite as literally)!

Are we witnessing biblical events?

  • 21.
  • At 11:41 PM on 06 Aug 2007,
  • Sean wrote:

"Are we witnessing biblical events?"

Yes we are, send me a load of money and I'll explain it further for you.

PS Look out behind you.

  • 22.
  • At 01:48 AM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • vikingar wrote:

- Funding .. Cuts ... Science Centre ...Foot & Mouth?

That looks like treasury business Gordon.

The current new PM had been Chancellor for 11 years - a centralised decision making Stalinist rule developed over this period, to dictate how much got spent on what.

... own goal in the offing - awaiting the tests/investigation



  • 23.
  • At 02:24 AM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • Lionel Tiger wrote:

This is a prime example of the problems of excessive red tape. The legislation that is supposed to protect against the risk of an adverse occurrance actually stops effective prevention. Responsability is absolved, due to the fact that 'all reasonable precautions were made', within the dictates of the law. This is a legal cop out, where mistakes can be covered up and compensation sought for avoidable errors. Nobody actually has great incentive to avoid disaster, because they can claim they did all they could within the law to avoid it, and can consequentially claim compensation, often being able to justify claims in excess of that lost. This abolition of duty is why socialism is such a poor system orientated with incompetent politicians that are able to deceive the proletariat, by conning the easily impressionable. Whatever they screw up, they claim it's nothing to do with them, when in reality they are failing to serve the people. It's high time a decent government returns to this land who actually knows how to do things properly, and lets those best able to manage their affairs to do so without interference. Believe it or not, people are quite capable when they realise the realities relating to the natural means of reward that incentivise good management. There is no need for legislation that allows lawyers to make considerable business from successful legal claims to prove black is white and white is black. Out with the red, less of the murky grey areas, and more of the green. Green is good, green is go, and green is growth. Go, green and grow. Great Britain, get out of the shade and get some nourishment to sustain you. Life is not zero sum utilitarianist. Go green and get alive. Then we'll all be happy.

  • 24.
  • At 06:11 AM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • JP wrote:

I have seen the footage here in NZ of the helicopter shots taken by the BBC on this disaster. One question I have is; Why is there a lab containing a feared and easily spreadable virus plonked right in the middle of a rural setting?

It is like taking a zippo cigarette lighter into a fire works factory. All is OK until someone flips open the top, then all 'ell breaks loose.

I may have it all wrong but this close proximity is what I am seeing from the images. Wouldn't a lab like this be better located in an industrial area away from farms and livestock?


Once again the public are asked to consider the consequencies of past government action and yet just let it slide bye because it was yesteryear.
Who was resposible for the appaling mismanagement of the last foot and mouth outbreak? Do" nt matter, Gordon was n't P.M.
Who was responsible for cutting the Budget for scientific research and building maintenance into foot and mouth?
Not Gordon, he was chancellor . DEFRA decide how to reallocate its reduced funds.
Is anyone responsible? "course not. Anyway, we are now spending money on a new building, so that is ok then.
DEFRA was set up after the last disaster and the useless labour minister Brown disappeared.
The Home Office was split up after being found unfit for purpose. 14 criminals are now at large but it don't matter, Gordon was n't PM at the time of the split.
The Ministry of Defence is now a part time job for the minister concerned. Everything is fine in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eqipment shotages wiil be sorted sometime, there are enough medical resourcesfor the physically and mentally injured. Come off it. The MOD is unfit for purpose.
For the sake of the nation THINK! This is an old incompetant Government with a new mouthpiece.
Nothing has changed. GET ANGRY>

  • 26.
  • At 10:00 AM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • Mike wrote:

If the F&M pathogen is shown to be the 1967 strain, then either of these labs is likely to be the cause.

More worrying for the government is that if Meriel with its modern facilities did not leak this pathogen then the older IAH buildings subject to budget cuts over recent years will come into the firing line. If the HSE report that the air filters were not up to the job, then Mr. Brown past will catch up with him.

For all of Brown's seriousness and gravitas and an end to spin. What have they been doing about this issue for the last few days? Pointing journalists at Meriel, denying budget problems and evidence to MPs at IAH. All spin!

Combined with the recent flooding, farming is in crisis enough. If this is government incompetence of the highest order, then Brown's 'honeymoon' is over.

  • 27.
  • At 10:50 AM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • Albert wrote:

Hi Laura, I am a very patient person and I am waiting for the investigations to produse some results.
Other then that, at the moment there are more knives being thrown behind the scenes (at Cemeron) then one portrays! Have a nice day Laura.

  • 28.
  • At 01:32 PM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • RKing wrote:

Another white wash when the HSE report back with their finding, the goverment espeically Brown will do what he can to detort the truth.. Like the other reports on the war labour detorted...Dont blame the goverment...more finger pointing..

  • 29.
  • At 03:02 PM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • grania davy wrote:

Will we be told who is responsible? We are told that the tests may not be conclusive. Merial is lisenced and inspected by the authoritiess. I do not understand why the slaughtered animals are trucked somewhere else for inceration. As it is an airbourne virus surely this risks spreading it? Also why is it 3KM around the area? We still have miles in the UK.

  • 30.
  • At 03:42 PM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • sandymac wrote:

Why has David Cameron delayed his holiday???

  • 31.
  • At 05:10 PM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • Anonymous wrote:

On a previous Newslog entry, Charlie the Zen Buddhist baffler geezer wrote:

'arguing and moaning is a waste time.'

Isn't that what you do on this blog every time you make an entry?

  • 32.
  • At 06:54 PM on 07 Aug 2007,
  • jonah wrote:

Curious, Comrade Brown takes the reins of office and within no time at all we've had a terror scare (Laurel and Hardy bomb the airport), flooding (Laurel and Hardy manage the flood defences), and now foot-and-mouth disease (Laurel and Hardy in the bio-laboratory, it would appear).

Most curious that this should all follow so soon after his coronation, especially in the light of the advice he appears to have been given to engage in a blaze of activity and then go to the polls.

  • 33.
  • At 04:30 PM on 08 Aug 2007,
  • sandymac wrote:

Why are farmers treated so differently ?

  • 34.
  • At 10:34 AM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • quietzapple wrote:

All the anti Brown and Labour Party fantasists out in full sepculative force, from Ralph on down, or is it up?

Laura's speculations hardly any better.

If this is not a result of deliberate sabotage by staff or vsiitors at the site then careless management of the many thousands of litres of material manufactured by Meriel and dispersal by shoes or wheels is better speculation.

Let us hope we shall see.

  • 35.
  • At 07:09 PM on 18 Aug 2007,
  • J.WESTERMAN wrote:

Stir up enough mud and some will stick!
At times it does least damage by waiting to see.Especially appropriate in a matter as serious as this one.

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