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This virus should never have got out. Everything was wrong ... Defra must take share of blame.

Byline: Steve Dube Farming Editor

LAST summer's foot-and-mouth outbreaks were caused by a "creeping degradation of standards" that must never happen again, an independent inquiry declared last week.

Inquiry chairman Iain Anderson said the animal health laboratories at Pirbright, Surrey, from where the virus escaped, was "shabby and dilapidated". Regulation and risk management were poor.

Dr Anderson, who also led the inquiry into the 2001 epidemic, said clarity of ownership and responsibility were needed for the site, which is shared by the Institute of Animal Health and private company Merial.

Funding and governance of the IAH were "muddled and ineffective" and the facilities fell short of international standards, although the science produced was first class and needed to be supported.

Dr Anderson called for the IAH to be turned into a new National Institute of Infection Disease to give higher priority to the area of animal health.

And he named names. He said the blame was shared between Defra as the regulator, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which is responsible for the site and funding, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council as the funding body, and the IAH governing body and management.

"This virus should never have got out. Everything was wrong around Pirbright," he said.

He said a number of people should have noticed what he described as the "creeping degradation of standards at Pirbright, combined with a lowering of expectations in spite of the potential dangers".

On top of that, communications between Defra, IAH and Merial had been poor, and a secondary leak in November - which was contained - showed they were still inadequate.

But he said lessons had been learned since the 2001 epidemic and the leadership shown in 2007 - from the Prime Minister down - could not have been in sharper contrast to the "dithering" and the failure to make crisp, sharp-edged decisions in 2001.

Dr Anderson said around 250 people a day - and a maximum of 450 - worked on the frontline to deal with the eight cases in August and September, and he wondered what would happen in a larger-scale outbreak.

"We wonder whether the effort that was put on to the ground to deal with 2007would be scaleable in the event of multiple clusters around the country," he said.

He warned of the growing risk to the country from globalisation and climate change - of which bluetongue was a feature.

"The Institute of Animal Health needs to be reconfigured and relaunched in a new framework, given increased priority to play a role going forward as an important defence for the years ahead," he said.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said the Government had already taken action. In a written statement, Mr Benn said Defra was transferring regulatory authority to the Health and Safety Executive. And Sir John Beringer would deliver his review of governance, funding and risk management at the IAH next month.

Farming leaders welcomed the report, but said they were disappointed at the lack of criticism of the Government's failure to help the industry recover.

NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond, who farms in Pembrokeshire, said, "We need to address the underlying cause of the virus leak-a lack of investment in vitally important and potential world-class research facilities.

"However we do need to find ways not merely of dealing with FMD outbreaks effectively, but of minimising the knock-on impact on the industry."

He said the 2007 outbreak caused more than pounds 100mof damage to the industry and cost the taxpayer almost pounds 50m.

"To apologise, as Hilary Benn has done repeatedly, is one thing.

To help the industry recover, as he has signally failed to do, is very much another," he said.

Farmers' Union of Wales president Gareth Vaughan said Dr Anderson had failed to criticise the UK Government's refusal to accept any blame.

"Recent Welsh Assembly Government figures, suggesting a massive drop in livestock farm incomes, highlight the impact of the FMD crisis which should be laid fairly and squarely at Westminster's door," said Mr Vaughan.

"WAG has already announced FMD has cost Welsh farming at least pounds 21malthough the real figure is thought to be much higher.

Mr Vaughan said the report also referred to tensions between the devolved administration and the Westminster Government.

"We welcome the recommendation for a review of the agreements which set out the relationships between the administrations and Defra," he said.


SHABBY AND DILAPIDATED The laboratory from where 2007's foot-and-mouth outbreak originated
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 18, 2008
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