HL Deb 14 December 1972 vol 337 cc767-72

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, if it meets the convenience of the House, I should like to answer a Private Notice Question asked earlier by my noble friend Lord Crathorne.

There have so far been three outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in Staffordshire. The first outbreak was reported on the morning of December 11 and movement restrictions within a radius of 5 miles were imposed immediately. The affected animals were slaughtered later that day and an Infected Area Order was made covering a substantial part of Staffordshire and part of Shropshire. A second outbreak occurred at Walsall on December 12 and the infected area was extended Eastwards to include parts of Derbyshire and Leicestershire and to cover movements through local markets. A third outbreak within the area was confirmed on the evening of December 13. Both these secondary outbreaks are directly linked with the initial outbreak. All the animals on the affected premises have been slaughtered. The Chief Veterinary Officer is now visiting the area and I am satisfied that all possible precautions are being taken.

My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture extends his sympathy to the farmers directly affected and would urge all those in the infected area to follow the advice that has been given to them. I hope that the urgent action being taken will reduce the risk of spread of infection to the absolute minimum.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. May I ask the Government whether there has yet been any indication of the particular virus which caused this outbreak which can be traced, and will in due course be traced, at our establishment at Pirbright? As noble Lords will be aware, there are some viruses which have only to be sniffed and the disease spreads like wildfire, while other viruses are not so quick spreading as these particularly vicious ones. I should be very interested to know whether the Government have any information on that point.


My Lords, the investigation into the type of virus that has led to the outbreak is still going on at the Foot-and Mouth Disease Research Institute at pirbright, and the virus has not yet been diagnoesed. I can assure my noble friend that the investigation is being carried out with all urgency, and I would point out to him that so far the outbreaks have all been in pigs.


My Lords, may I ask whether there is any evidence of the reason for this very sudden outbreak at this particular place?


My Lords, it is not possible at this stage to say what was the cause of the outbreak, although very serious investigations are being made to determine the cause. Swill has been involved and this is one of the lines being investigated; but it is by no means conclusive or decisive that that is the cause.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl for his Answer, but I think that most of us would say that the statement he has made is most uninformative. The first question I should like to put is what is the number of animals involved; and what kind of animals. Unless we know this we do not really know what we are discussing. I should also like to know why the noble Earl referred to the second and third outbreaks being regarded as secondary. Does he mean that these outbreaks came after the first? They are all very important so far as the industry is concerned. The noble Earl also said that he hoped the urgent action being taken would reduce the risk, but he has not explained what urgent action is being taken. If we are to ask intelligent questions we should like to know what it is.

May I ask the noble Earl what disinfectant is being used in the areas of the farms? The present Minister has on previous occasions insisted on large doses of disinfectant being distributed around the farms. Is this being done in this case? May I also ask what veterinary staff are being employed? The Answer said that the Chief Veterinary Officer had gone there, but the Chief Veterinary Officer cannot cope with a problem of this kind on his own, so I should like to know what additional veterinary staff have been sent into the area to deal with the problem. There is also a very obvious question from the point of view of the Northern areas, because Scotland has not been infected with this disease for a long time. We should like to know what precautions the Ministry is taking to prevent the virus from spreading North of the Border.

Finally, may I ask a question about the cause of the disease, because on so many occasions, as the noble Earl seemed to suggest in his reply to the supplementary question from the noble Lord, Lord Alport, due to a lack of treatment or cooking or whatever may be the process, pig swill has been involved. When the noble Earl says that the other two outbreaks are secondary to the first, does he trace the second and third outbreaks to the same source?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, for putting those questions which I think were entirely justified. I hope he will acquit me of appearing not to answer them initially. I was endeavouring to be brief. The noble Lord asked me how many animals were involved. In fact, the number of animals slaughtered were 105 cattle, 182 sheep, 689 pigs and one goat. The noble Lord said I referred to secondary outbreaks. What I meant by that was that it was secondary by number as opposed to secondary in importance. There have been three outbreaks and there is a connection between the second and the third. Animals were moved from the farm where they were originally to a second place.

The noble Lord asked what urgent action is being taken. In accordance with the recommendations in the Northumberland Report all the major items of which have been implemented, there is an epidemiology team in the area. The team consists of a scientist, who is a viriologist, a meteorologist, because, as the noble Lord will remember, the way the wind blows is of great importance in connection with the way the virus may be carried; there are veterinary officers and a full supporting staff and a mobile centre. Many of the recommendations of the Northumberland Report have been put into action already with regard to the collection of milk and so forth. As there are artificial insemination centres in the area, and the virus may be carried over the gates, farmers will be given the semen and invited to "do it yourself", as it were, from the point of view of inseminating cattle.

The noble Lord asked about disinfectant. FAM is the type being used. He asked what was the protection provided to prevent the virus spreading Northwards. As I explained, there has been an infected area declared. Initially, this was of a radius of some five miles. It is now some 30 miles by 40 miles, and extends over an area of some 1,200 square miles. At the time the wind was coming from the South-West; therefore the infected area has been extended to the North-East in an immediate effort to prevent contamination in that direction.


My Lords, may I ask one further question of the noble Earl? This is a most virulent disease, and from this side of the House we should like to associate ourselves with the expression of sympathy to the farmers involved. I know what it means to them and what it costs. This disease can spread rapidly, as we know. We have had some appalling experiences even in recent times, and I ask for an assurance that should there be a further spread, or any likelihood of it spreading, your Lordships' House may be kept informed.


My Lords, I will certainly see that the attention of my right honourable friend is drawn to what the noble Lord has said.


My Lords, I was about to ask for the same assurance, and to extend sympathy from this side of the House. I hope that next week we may have a progress report, whatever may be the position. As the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, has said, this disease can spread very quickly and it is most important that your Lordships should be informed of what is going on.


My Lords, I accept the concern expressed by my noble friend and by the noble Lord, Lord Hoy. The Government are deeply concerned because of 'the virulent and unpleasant nature of the disease, but I will see that my noble friend's recommendation is put forward.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, in view of the fact that there has been a proved connection between the three outbreaks and that this must have been known at a fairly early stage, is the noble Earl satisfied that the standstill radius was made wide enough at the start? It would seem to us that it would be a fault on the right side to make the radius too wide to begin with rather than too narrow. It seems as if in this case the standstill radius was chasing the outbreaks rather than being on the outside of the outbreaks. It seems to me that during the day of December 11 it should have been possible to discover all the places to which infected animals might have gone from the original source, and therefore it should have been possible to draw the radius round the places to which infected animals had gone by, at least, December 12, and certainly before the third outbreak made it necessary to move the radius wider. Can the noble Earl give us an assurance that he is satisfied with the procedures for this? And, if he is not satisfied, can he say whether he is considering other procedures in any other cases where the radius will be drawn wider so as to effect a standstill in a bigger area while the position is being examined?

Finally, my Lords, may I also associate noble Lords on these Benches with the sympathy that has been expressed? This is the most terrifying of all diseases to a farmer who has spent his life building up a stock of livestock. We have deep sympathy with the farmers affected.


My Lords, I entirely take the noble Viscount's point as to whether the original area was wide enough. He will, I know, realise that any decision as to the size of area declared infected must be taken on the spot with the knowledge that is then available. I have said that the infected area has since been increased to 1,200 square miles. I assure the noble Viscount that all the outbreaks are within the original infected area, and it would seem at the moment that that area was not of an inadequate size. The area has however been increased to make doubly certain so that any eventuality should be reasonably covered.


My Lords, as one who lives at Staffordshire and remembers only too well the ordeal five years ago of all the farmers on the Shropshire/Cheshire border, may I ask the noble Earl to bear in mind fully that the Northumberland Report was very comprehensive? Will the noble Earl give the House an assurance that should this outbreak, unhappily, spread, the Government will not be stampeded into unwise measures such as happened five years ago? What I have in mind particularly is the cancellation of sporting events, which led to racing being stopped at Wolverhampton, when half a mile away 60,000 people were watching Wolverhampton Wanderers; 20 miles in the other direction 50,000 were watching Stoke-on-Trent; in the other direction, goodness knows! how many people were watching Liverpool and Everton, not to mention the 15,000 watching Chester. I personally should be much happier if I could be reasonably sure that the Government have accepted the advice of their very competent veterinary and scientific staff, and are not being stampeded by people whose scientific knowledge is probably limited to the distinction between H2O and H2SO4


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, for his intervention. I must say that I was wondering how this would come down to horseracing. I can assure the noble Lord that, whatever happens. the Government will not be stampeded. They will take the best decision they can in the light of all the advice given to them. At the moment, of course, things like hunting and point-to-point meetings are prohibited in the infected area, but horse-racing may be allowed, provided that it is not over agricultural land. This would seem at the moment to be the reasonable line to take; but I can give the noble Lord the assurance that if the disease develops further his view, along with all the others, will be taken into account.