Monday, 12 November 2007

It is about Democracy, dammit

When faced for the second time round with a dreary old "lessons to be learned" government review, can one summon the will to live, let alone pick up a pen?

Last time, a ProMed Moderator remarked tactfully
" the Lessons to be Learned Inquiry, had obviously to manoeuvre within a politically challenged landscape..."
You bet it did; a desert landscape with anxious vultures.
For how long can an Inquiry Chairman, sitting on his branch and appointed as a safe pair of hands, listen to howls of grief and anger about his political masters? Not very long. A quick swoop and the flesh of criticism is reduced to dry bones and dust and quietly forgotten. The sloughing off of reproach reached giddy heights during an interview on the Today Programme, December 18 2001 when the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government,David King, blandly announced:
"What I was happy to achieve in the FMD outbreak was showing that science in real time could provide a sound basis for policy advice."
Instead of falling dead on the spot he then went on to tell Jim Naughtie that the portable on-site RT-PCR diagnostic kit offered to the UK by ARS Tetracore in the US -(used successfully in Uruguay in the very same year)
"is based on a very well known technique...that technique has now been proven not to be capable of being validated..."
Not "validated"? For six years these simple to handle portable machines have been used by the US military to save lives and to track and destroy pathogens.

It is very evident that DEFRA's ignorance of virology, of vaccination, of farming and of animals is part of the reason for their institutionalised secrecy: they do not wish to be challenged. As for the Chief Scientific Advisor whose fell hand can be seen behind this year's policy, he may well have expertise in surface chemistry but - as the NFU's Anthony Gibson has said - he has no understanding of what was suffered by farmers who were forced to watch the destruction of entire pedigree herds in their farmyards.
"To him it appears to be a dry statistical exercise, whereas to those involved it was flesh, blood, tears, sweat and heartbreak."
In 2002 the official inquiries, anxious not to whisper criticisms too loudly at those great ones who had made such an unholy, bloody, fiasco of things listed some gentle recommendations. They were the lessons to be learned.

DEFRA did not learn them.

So, yet again, here are the Lessons to be Learned about coping with a foot and mouth outbreak.

1. Don't let virus escape.
It really didn't have to. Animal Disease Research should have been properly funded and the concerns of its experts listened to.
Pirbright's Professor Martin Shirley told the Science and Technology Select Committee earlier this year.
".....flat funding during the past three years for the Reference Laboratories (ie a significant cut in real terms) has meant that key areas of work, including some critical state-of-the art diagnostics, has to be undertaken by PhD students at the very beginning of their research training.....Year on year, we are able to do less science or we are able to employ less people, and this is an area of work that spans from foot and mouth through to bluetongue other exotic pathogens which pose a threat to the UK. We are forced to look at this whole area of activity to see where we can juggle the research, so there is a risk.... "

2.Vaccines against FMD are excellent. For pity's sake, let us use them.
Vaccination must be more than "considered" - it must be used as quickly as possible.
As for those regulations that cause exporting farmers (the powerful ones) to raise such a howl of agony if vaccination is suggested, is evident that there are many in the EU hierarchy itself who are not in agreement with the three month/six month rule.
The Member States should challenge these daft regulations - particularly now that Bluetongue vaccination is being embraced by one and all. Regulations are not set in stone. In the 2003 Directive, even the EU Directive - in its very first paragraph - says:
".....the Community is also a Community of values, and its policies to combat animal diseases must not be based purely on commercial interests but must also take genuine account of ethical principles."

3. The new technologies of rapid on-site RT-PCR diagnosis must be embraced and used.
They have been used to track and eliminate pathogens by the military in the West for nearly a decade. They are now being routinely used on farms in the former Soviet Bloc. What - apart from commercial jealousy - is stopping their use here?

4. A truly independent Advisory Group needs enough clout to oversee and if necessary intervene

There needs to be true accountability

Parliamentary Questions are all very well. They do, if asked with skill, eventually tease out of the reluctant Ministry some degree of truth about the way things were done - but an institutionalised secrecy pervades DEFRA and it seems that many have just given up trying to demand answers.

Yet such damning questions as the number of healthy animals killed - and why - should indeed be examined beyond the closed walls of Westminster. There was so little need for the suffering that went on.
If Pirbright had the sort of State of the Art equipment as that used in the private sector proper testing could have been done before animals were summarily killed. The Emersons, who lost all their free range animals were blackmailed with the emotive suggestion that their one possibly suspect pig (it was not in fact infected) could become a "virus factory". They reluctantly agreed to slaughter. In fact, they had no choice. Had they resisted, the Animal Health Act would have made their refusal a criminal act. How ironic it is that had they been living in former Soviet Bloc countries such as Uzbechistan, a diagnostic machine the size of a toaster could have discovered within 20 minutes if that pig was really infected or not. As it was, they lost their pets, their breeding cows who all had names, their pigs and sheep. All destroyed - and for no reason. It is criminal waste and cruelty.

5. Hindsight should have given us foresight

Eminent people spent a great deal of time and effort in preparing reports and making recommendations after the 2001 misery. In 2007 it was clear that we FAILED to follow the following:

1. Vaccination must form part of future control of a disease outbreak (Anderson)
2. Create a new national volunteer reserve to help in a disease outbreak(Anderson)
3. Devise new role for veterinary "paramedics" to assist vets in outbreaks(Anderson)
4. New training for farmers and vets in spotting rare diseases and bio-security(Anderson and Royal Society of London)
5. New guidance and instructions on slaughter of animals(Anderson)
6. A "senatorial" group to be set up to provide independent advice to the Prime Minister and Cabinet during a crisis.(Anderson)
7. Accountants and procurement experts to be recruited to work in emergency control centres during a crisis. (Anderson)
8. Emergency vaccination to be used as "a major tool of first resort" to prevent a foot and mouth outbreak becoming an epidemic (Royal Society)
9. The aim is to "vaccinate to live" and for animals to enter the food chain in the normal way. (Royal Society)
10. Tests to distinguish between an infected and vaccinated animals "a priority" ( i.e. for individual animals as well as the already validated herd based tests).
11. A new campaign to win over consumers to safe eating of foot and mouth vaccinated meat and milk. (Royal Society)
12. More research for a foot and mouth vaccine which could possibly be used routinely (ie not just for emergency vaccination) within 15 years - this would require international agreement. (Royal Society)
13. A new early warning system to alert the country to potential threat from new exotic diseases. One option is for a New National Centre for Animal Disease Research and Surveillance. (Royal Society)
14. A new national database of every owner of farm animals including pets, zoos, rare breed collections and animal sanctuaries. (Royal Society)
15. An extra £250 million funding for research and development, particularly to find a new diagnostic test to quickly identify diseased farms. (Royal Society)
16. Encourage new vets to join the state veterinary service(Royal Society)
17. The setting up of an independent standing committee to monitor the maintenance of effective planning (Royal Society of Scotland)

So if we do not pick up our pens and write to the Anderson Review, what then? Politics has been allowed to play hell with the lives of those it should protect. Knowing this, we are as much to blame if we do nothing.

It is inconvenient and a real pain - but Edmund Burke was right: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The email address for the Anderson Review is