February 22, 2021

Quiz of the week, and your starter for 10: Identify the pandemic from the following information: Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College computer-models apocalyptic mortality rates, the Government bungles containment of the disease, movement (and civil rights) are restricted, a miracle-cure vaccine is preferred, the economy takes a hit of billions.

Covid-19? Those of us who live in the countryside might answer differently. We might  reply, “The foot-and-mouth epidemic of  2001”, the 20th anniversary of which we commemorate this month.

I do mean commemorate, as you do with disasters. On 19 February 2001, Craig Kirby, the statutory attendant vet at Cheale Meats abattoir in Little Warley, Essex, noticed blisters on a batch of lethargic pigs. The last epidemic of foot-and-mouth (FMD) had taken place in 1967, before Kirby was born, but he identified the symptoms correctly and called the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) — the forerunner of DEFRA. Four days later, an FMD case was confirmed on a run-down pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, which MAFF eventually determined as the source of the epizootic. (Owner Bobby Waugh was later convicted of having failed to inform the authorities of a notifiable disease, and feeding his pigs “untreated waste”; he was probably, to use a bon mot, scapegoated by MAFF, and the disease had  been existent in sheep flocks for weeks beforehand but undetected.)

By the time the epidemic, caused by the Pan-Asian O variant of FMD, was brought under complete control in January 2002, over 7 million cows, sheep, goats, pigs — essentially, all animal types with the Devil’s cloven-hooves — had been slaughtered. Businesses had gone under, ancient rights of way closed, parts of the country deemed no-go exclusion zones. The Cheltenham Literary Festival cancelled. The General Election postponed — for the first time since the Second World War — and the economy black-holed by £10bn, from revenue lost and the compensation given to the 2,000 affected farmers.

And life down on the farm was never the same again. The fun went out of it. Farming became so micro-managed by DEFRA after FMD you could need permission to move livestock to an adjacent field. In triplicate. While waiting six days. If you think some of Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 measures smack of Big State I can only tell you that the farming community have been the guinea pigs.

We farmed sheep back then in 2001, in west Herefordshire, where England runs into Mid-Wales. I remember foot-and-mouth well, although, curiously, not as cinema, but as single-frame images. The fracturing stress of it all, I suppose. We chained and padlocked all our gates to prevent anyone, and especially the MAFF death squads, coming onto the property. One midsummer’s morning I stepped out into the field behind the house, and on every ringing hill there were sky-blackening pyres of animals being burned, the barbecue stench filling the air. The village school closed due to the “smog” from roasting animal flesh. Troops in a Land Rover, rifles sticking out the front window, going up and down the lane, the soldiers having been conscripted for the slaughter of the animals. We were under siege from our own side.

Other fragments of memory: a friend hiding her pedigree pigs in the cellar. The wheels and the underside of the stock trailer being sprayed with disinfectant at Hereford cattle market by men in those plastic suits forensic pathologists wear. Disinfectant everywhere. Disinfectant on rubber mats for cars to drive over. Disinfectant on trays for boots to step in. Disinfectant coming out of the nozzle of a spray-gun.

We lived in disinfectant. And fear.

And we who lived in the country in 2001 lost our respect for computer-types. The establishment’s response to FMD was a bonfire of the sanities, not just in the science of retrospect, but in the common sense of the moment. So, let us fight through the smoke, to find the fire-starters. Beginning with Imperial College, London.

In the concrete towers of Imperial College computer-types, including Neil Ferguson, had been busy — busy modelling human diseases. At the press of a button in 2001, they decided their modelling worked for FMD, and FMD was so potentially catastrophic that the only answer was a “contiguous cull” — the slaughter of all susceptible animals within 3km of known cases. On the basis of Imperial’s computer model was determined the FMD-eradication policy of Tony Blair’s Labour government.

On March 16, with FMD cases at 240, MAFF announced the implementation of Imperial’s contiguous cull. Enter the MAFF slaughter squads, killing millions of animals  — whether healthy or not — with a bullet to the head. If the creatures were lucky. Some animals got bludgeoned. Or drowned.

The poor bloody animals, about which no-one in authority seemed to give a shit, from the RSPCA to the NEC of the ruling Labour Party. Can you imagine the fuss if a fox had been clubbed? But fine, kill lambs any which way you want to ensure their silence.

The cull was absolute, inflexible. Sheep quarantined in sheds with full bio-security? Killed. Pet sheep, disease-free, brought into the sitting room for safety? Killed. It happened to Carolyn Hoffe in Scotland, whose house was broken into by MAFF vets and their armed Gurkha escort. In Devon vets were accompanied by police in riot gear, as the former broke into farms to perform the state-approved rites of the contiguous cull — the legality of which was always dubious, whether under UK law, or EU law. Or, indeed, natural justice.

By late Spring 32,000 animals a day were being exterminated. During the summer, the figure reached 92,000, and still FMD rampaged up and down the country. In some localities, the livestock were butchered in such gargantuan numbers that the corpses lay around in mounds for days, before burial or incineration. Lorries, leaking fluid from slaughtered infected cattle, went through uninfected areas, risking the spread of the disease. Death and smoke and blood. The British countryside  turned into an infernal Dantean vision in the summer of 2001. Tourism — surprise! — nosedived.

During the Vietnam War, a hapless US army officer explained infamously, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Imperial College’s computer-modelling geniuses, one feels, took his advice to heart, assuming they had hearts. And 15% of Britain’s farm animals were slaughtered in the contiguous cull.

Because, in the mad, mad world of FMD 2001, guess who was not allowed to control the campaign against the epizootic? Veterinary experts. They were shoved aside by an unholy alliance of Imperial College computer geeks, Blairite politicos, and the National Farmers Union, the NFU (which soon came to stand for “No Fucking Use” down our way; the NFU is always touted as “Agriculture’s Voice”, when it represents a mere 30% of farmers, and is heavily bent towards agribusiness).

In the very earliest days of the crisis, the government’s very own foot-and-mouth experts — at the Animal Health Institute’s laboratory at Pirbright — informed Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, that Imperial’s model was flawed. For starters, the model failed to take account of the variety of farming practices, the varying rates of transmission between different species, and exaggerated the effect of windborne spread. Pirbright’s Dr Paul Kitching condemned mass culling as “scientifically unsound”.

You see, there was always an alternative to the literal overkill of the overlooked animals in the great British barbaric barbecue. Vaccination.

Many tried to make Tony Blair see reason, including Prince Charles, who sent No 10 a scientific paper from Edinburgh University arguing the case for mass vaccination of livestock. It fell on deaf ears. Blair refused pathetically, pusillanimously to gainsay his own appointed FMD tsars, Professor David King (a chemist for god’s sake) and Professor Roy Anderson of — you guessed it — Imperial College’s computer-modelling department, the very people who deemed the contiguous cull essential. Blair was also swayed by Ben Gill, chairman of the NFU, who pleaded that vaccination would undermine Britain’s FMD-free status, damaging meat exports abroad. (If you want to play the numbers game, tourism to the countryside brings in £10bn per annum — quite a tranche of it going to the many small farmers doing B&B — far more quids to the national coffers than lamb, pork and beef exports abroad; and, anyway, why not “Eat British”, Mr Ben? )

So, sense and compassion went up in smoke, along with millions of animals and billions of pounds sterling, and Britain’s green and pleasant land was turned into killing fields.

It need not have happened. The likelihood of vaccination being successful was not theoretical. The Netherlands also had an outbreak of FMD in 2001. So, your second question in quiz of the week: How was the Netherland’s FMD outbreak brought under control?

Correct! Mass vaccination.