HL Deb 08 March 2001 vol 623 cc313-6

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely:

What is the latest development in the foot and mouth epidemic?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, it might assist the House if I answer the Question in the same terms as my right honourable friend answered a similar Question earlier today in another place.

At noon today, there were 104 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom—103 in Great Britain and one in Northern Ireland—with a number still under investigation. The pattern is still consistent with Heddon-on-the-Wall as the oldest known outbreak, with subsequent spread mainly through movement of animals, particularly sheep. About 90,000 animals have been identified for slaughter, of which 61,000 have been killed so far. Plans are in hand to render some of the carcasses as an alternative to burning on farm.

More than 260 abattoirs have been approved for the scheme by the Meat Hygiene Service as licensed to slaughter. Of those, 168 were operating yesterday. The Meat and Livestock Commission estimated yesterday that British pork production was back to 50 per cent of normal, with beef at 40 per cent and lamb at 30 per cent.

In order to relieve animal welfare problems, officials are urgently working on arrangements to allow licensed local movement of animals within farms in uninfected areas only, where this would not increase disease risk. We hope to have proposals prepared very shortly.

The EU Standing Veterinary Committee met on 6th March. The ban on UK exports of animals and products has been extended to Tuesday 27th March, but from 9th March the UK will be able to export unpasteurized cheeses to some countries.

The SVC also imposed a ban on all livestock markets and assembly points in the EU for two weeks, and a ban on animal movements except to slaughter or from farm to farm authorised by the competent authority. All vehicles leaving the UK will have to pass over a disinfectant bath. The Commission remains very supportive of UK action against the disease.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for updating us about this tragic incident. One hundred and four cases are 104 cases too many. Perhaps I may again express our sympathies to the families who are dealing directly with the problem and to those who have seen their lifetime work destroyed. Perhaps I may also pay tribute to MAFF, the vets and all those working at the front line. They all deserve our thanks.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Byford

My Lords, the Minister mentioned localised movement and I am aware that there is a safety factor in whatever restrictions on movement are introduced. However, is the Minister aware that there is increasing pressure and urgency on farmers who have in-lamb ewes?

Secondly, it is taking up to two weeks to confirm whether a suspect case is positive or negative. Can that time be shortened? Having had a case confirmed, it sometimes takes five or six days before disposal of the animals is completed. Do the Government have available to them a sufficient number of vets and so forth? Have they asked for help from, say, the Ministry of Defence?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness. She is right to point out that in any licensing scheme, whether for resumption of trade or for welfare reason, a difficult balance must be struck in weighing the risk of disease spreading by movement and the risk of compromise to animal welfare. We are looking at a localised scheme. Obviously, we are well aware of the difficulties of many animals, particularly sheep away from their home farms about to lamb. We are putting out welfare advice on animals which are away from home.

We are looking at a scheme for licensing movements but I have to say that overall the veterinary advice about minimising the risk of disease spread must take priority. The farming unions recognise that because it is in the interests of the industry as a whole.

As regards the time taken for confirmation, in many cases positive diagnosis of the disease is being made on clinical symptoms only, but when a case needs to go to a laboratory it is being confirmed quickly. Finding a negative result takes longer due to the nature of the necessary exhaustive tests. In some cases, there have been hold-ups in laboratories and we are seeking to smooth those out and deal with any backlogs.

I am aware of the concern about delay in the disposal of the animals. Dispatch of the animals must be achieved within 24 hours. They are then disinfected and the disposal of corpses is arranged. Delays have not been connected with manpower but with getting together large stocks of coal, railway sleepers and other necessary items. That is why we are looking at transport in sealed vehicles to rendering plants. However, for the avoidance of doubt I should say that there is no reason to believe that these corpses are a disease risk; they are treated with disinfectant and are not exhaling the virus.

he Countess of Mar

My Lords, I agree with the sentiments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the excellent work being done by the Minister's staff. I was most moved to hear the noble Baroness this morning expressing genuine sympathy for all the farmers. She drove me to tears at a quarter to six this morning.

I declare an interest as a specialist cheese maker and want to ask the Minister a question of which I have given her notice. I consulted my environmental health officer this morning and know that there is great concern about the fact that in restricted areas, or in areas in which there has been an outbreak, there is to be no movement of unpasteurised cheeses. I can tell the Minister that half an hour ago I spoke to Dr Fred Brown, the eminent expert on foot and mouth disease. He advised me that it is highly unlikely that foot and mouth virus would survive the cheese-making process, whether the milk was pasteurised or not. He also advised me that as regards cheeses already made, a spray with a 2 per cent citric acid solution would kill the virus.

What risk assessment was done by her department before that instruction was released? Will it reconsider its decision on the safety of cheese?

Baroness; Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Countess for her comments and for giving me notice of her technical question. If the unpasteurised cheese was made before an area was declared infected, it can be moved freely in and out of the area. After declaration of an infected area, one cannot process unpasteurised milk into cheese. It would not be permitted under the Dairy Products Hygiene Regulations 1995.

I note the point which the noble Countess made about the scientific evidence available. If she would give it to me, I should be happy to put it to the state veterinary service in order to see whether we need to make amendments without compromising the spread of disease.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister on the time taken for testing. I listened carefully to her reply. I understand that the time taken for a positive test is four hours and that the Pirbright centre needs to undertake a further test to confirm a negative result, which takes 96 hours.

However, a test for a case near me at Badgworth near Axbridge was sent off on 28th February and the results have not been returned. Will the Minister accept that, when farmers want to know whether they can take part in a licensing scheme, that wait is very long? Furthermore, is it the target time? Six or seven days is much more than the 96 hours which the test should take.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, if every positive result was found within four hours it would take the same amount of time to find a negative result. It does take longer. While 96 hours is widely quoted, it is the minimum laboratory period required to obtain a negative result in some cases. Depending on the samples submitted—sometimes additional samples have to be taken—it may take longer. I do not disagree with the noble Baroness that hold-ups have occurred in individual cases. We have tried to investigate them and make sure that if there is a systemic problem we address it. We shall continue to do that and deal with any cases that are raised with us.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it was right and proper to table this Question, but that in thanking so many people the noble Baroness forgot to thank Her Majesty's Government, in particular the Minister's department, for the efficient and expeditious way in which they have dealt with this matter? Will my noble friend accept from me and my colleagues, and, I believe, noble Lords on all sides of the House, congratulations on the way in which this matter has been dealt with?

Baroness Byford

My Lords, before the Minister responds, I did thank MAFF, which is the government department for which the noble Baroness is responsible.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, no one has been anything other than generous in responding to how the department has dealt with this crisis. We are not through it yet. Noble Lords have used the past tense. I believe that we should all keep our accolades until we have finished.