HC Deb 05 April 2001 vol 366 cc485-9
3. Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

When he forecasts that the incidence of foot and mouth outbreaks will start to decline. [155680]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

On the basis of independent scientific advice, the Government's chief scientific adviser has concluded that the Government's slaughter and containment policy is beginning to bear down on the disease. Nevertheless, this is a very serious outbreak, which is likely to have a long tail. The critical interventions in controlling the disease are to cull all animals susceptible to foot and mouth disease on infected holdings within 24 hours, and to cull all susceptible animals on farms sharing a boundary with the infected premises within 48 hours. We will be better placed to predict the future development of the disease in a week's time.

Ms Drown

I welcome my right hon. Friend's optimism and recognise the huge difficulties in predicting the decline of such an infectious disease. That good news is also good news for the tourism industry. One issue that farmers in my constituency are raising with me relates to the welcome opening of more footpaths. They are concerned that footpaths that are close to livestock may be reopened. Can my right hon. Friend assure them that proper guidance will be sent to councils and to farmers via the very good network of NFU contacts so that people can be assured that all precautions will be taken?

May I also pass on another concern from local farmers? Transporter vehicles have to travel long distances to disinfection points. Can my right hon. Friend assure farmers that that policy will be examined to see whether the distances can be reduced?

Mr. Brown

We are examining whether we can open further disinfection points. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the key advice that people should stay away from farmed livestock, but that is all the advice. There is no reason why people cannot enjoy footpaths. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government will issue comprehensive advice on precisely that point.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

As the key factor in ensuring that this terrible crisis abates is to effect the rapid slaughter and disposal of animals, has the Minister's attention been drawn to the report produced in 1968 by Western Command on the military impact and the efforts of the troops? It shows how they structured the recommendation to have a civilian commander with responsibility for veterinary matters and relations with Ministries and a military commander with total responsibility for dealing with the administration logistics of the slaughter and disposal of animals. Has that structure been recommended to the Minister? It was recommended after 1968. Can it be introduced now in view of the critical need to take a more urgent approach to the disposal of animals?

Mr. Brown

The structure that the right hon. Gentleman describes sounds to me very much like what is actually happening in Cumbria, Devon and other hotspots. If there is some difference in nuance that he wishes to raise or pursue, I am happy to discuss it with him, but there is no division between the approach taken by military and civilian personnel. They are all working very well together to a common shared objective.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Despite what my right hon. Friend has said, the perception in Bishop Auckland, where there are 17 confirmed cases, is that the situation is still getting worse. Will he please guarantee that he can get sufficient resources to the command in the north-east of England to ensure that the cull of animals on adjoining farms can be accomplished within 48 hours?

Mr. Brown

My right hon. Friend is right. Indeed, I visited the north-east headquarters of the disease control operation last Sunday. In response to representations from my right hon. Friend and others, I have ensured that extra resources—especially extra veterinary resources—are allocated to the north-east of England to give his constituents the reassurance to which they are entitled.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Will the Minister confirm what he believes are the grounds for the guarded optimism that we heard yesterday? Does he share entirely the views of the chief scientific adviser? If so, and if we are seeing the beginning of the end, will he give his attention to movement licences in unaffected areas? Many farmers are substantially affected, even though they are not in affected areas.

Mr. Brown

I keep the issue of movement licences carefully under review, but I am not yet in a position to announce any liberalisation of the regime. I hope that what the chief scientist says is right, but I am not able to confirm it yet. As I said, we need a further seven days to get a better take on the pattern of this serious disease outbreak. In the meantime, we should not relax our guard; there is no room for complacency.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Obviously, I listen carefully to the news that is given to the House. However, I wonder whether the use of landfill sites for carcases may spread the disease in areas where we had not previously seen it, because animals graze right up to such sites and there is great danger. Would we not be better off rendering the animals?

Mr. Brown

Farmed livestock are, of course, kept away from landfill sites. The risk of spreading the disease through the movement of vehicles to landfill sites is minimal and, of course, the risk of the disease re-emerging from such sites is even lower than very, very minimal.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Does the Minister agree that the defining moment for whether the incidence is in decline or on the increase will be on or about 23 April? He referred to cattle coming out of winter shelter and going to spring pastures. However, it is not good enough for the Ministry to say that the animals should be kept indoors, when farmers have no money to feed the beasts. In many instances, there are also animal welfare considerations. Yesterday, the Minister's scientific experts told us that there must be a distance of 100 m or one field separating cattle and sheep. If MAFF fails to control the disease on that date—23 April—does the Minister accept that its incidence could rise to 400 cases per day?

Mr. Brown

No, I do not accept the forecast to which the hon. Lady treats the House. The policies we are pursuing are right. It is right for the Government to work with the NFU leadership to keep valuable dairy stock housed for as long as possible so that the risk of their exposure to the disease is minimised. She is right to say that the animals will have to be turned out, but is wrong to say that the date on which they are turned out will be the day when the policy is tested. If we do not pursue vigorously the policy on which we are embarked, we all have a duty to consider the alternatives. None of them—including the use of vaccination for dairy animals—is easy, and they are being resisted by the industry, especially by the farmers who own the animals.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will my right hon. Friend refer to Brigadier Birtwhistle the thanks and appreciation of all Members of the House for his sterling work? For many of us, the brigadier has restored the belief that people in public service do a first-class job.

Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether it is scientifically possible to vaccinate cattle without a delayed cull?

Mr. Brown

The answer to the second question is obviously yes. Indeed, among the strategies that the Government are considering but have not adopted, and that are not being announced today, is the possibility that valuable dairy animals could be vaccinated and live on—the vaccine would wear off over the next 12 months. That strategy is possible, but there is a downside too, including issues of trade and consumer acceptance.

On the work of Brigadier Birtwhistle and his men, I have seen at first hand the excellent work that the armed services are doing in Carlisle, working alongside civilian personnel to a common objective. My congratulations go out to everyone—both civilian and military personnel, who are working so hard throughout the country to get this terrible disease under control and to eliminate it.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I warmly welcome the latest, more encouraging projections about the future scale of the outbreak and very much hope that those will be confirmed by events in the next few weeks. Will the Minister confirm that, as his Ministry's figures show that 277,000 animals were awaiting slaughter on Tuesday of last week and that only 229,000 were slaughtered in the following seven days, at least 48,000 infected or dangerous contact animals remained unslaughtered for at least a week? As that shows that the Government are still a long way from meeting the 24-hour report-to-slaughter target described two weeks ago by the chief scientific adviser as essential if foot and mouth disease is to be brought under control, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to continue to publish daily figures for the number of animals awaiting slaughter, the number being slaughtered and the number of carcases awaiting disposal?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman's approach is mistaken. The crucial intervention is between report and slaughter. We must get those figures down to under 24 hours. That is the advice from the epidemiologists and it was what we have set out to do. The hon. Gentleman is looking at animals that have been ordered for slaughter in infected premises and on neighbouring premises. The slaughter of animals on neighbouring premises is necessary, but it is an intervention of less significance—although important—than culling animals on infected premises. In fact, vets as a matter of routine are first slaughtering animals on infected premises that show signs of infection, before slaughtering the cohorts. To enable the House to understand the full range, for every three cases that are reported—that is what triggers the veterinary inspection—two turn out to be false alarms and only one is a real outbreak.

Mr. Yeo

Given what the Minister has said, will he therefore undertake to publish a separate figure within the total of animals awaiting slaughter for those that are infected and need to be slaughtered within the 24-hour target and those that are simply on neighbouring farms, for which I understand the target is 48 hours? The figures that I quoted show that even that lesser target is a long way from being met. Will he also confirm that as of today, about 1.5 million animals are awaiting slaughter under the welfare disposal scheme and that many of them are experiencing distressing animal welfare problems? What steps is he taking to clear that massive backlog and will he also publish regular figures so that progress can be publicly measured?

Mr. Brown

I have answered the hon. Gentleman's first question. The second was a perfectly proper question about the animal welfare scheme, which has proved to be very popular. If the industry were working completely normally, it would take five weeks of normal consumption to clear the animals that are being proposed for the scheme. This is a new scheme and it has been set up from a standing start. We have started to take animals away on a priority basis. The purpose of the scheme is to deal with genuine welfare issues. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a backlog and we are trying to clear it, but I cannot promise the House that that will be easy given the popularity of the scheme.

Mr. Phil Sawford (Kettering)

In Northamptonshire, as a result of one confirmed case, movements are restricted in a huge swath of my constituency, which leads to animal welfare and financial problems, and other farmers are falling foul of the BSE rules under the over-30-months scheme. Will my right hon. Friend look at the area covered by those restrictions and the time scale for them? Will he also look at the discrepancy between the 75 per cent. paid under the 30-months rule and the 100 per cent. paid under the foot and mouth rules, because some farmers are losing out through no fault of their own?

Mr. Brown

A number of anomalies are created by the movement restrictions, and they are unavoidable if we are to bear down on the disease. I will do what I can to help, and I promise my hon. Friend that I will look at the issues that he raises. However, I cannot move away from the very firmly imposed movement restrictions if we are to have any chance of eliminating the disease and returning quickly to normal trade.