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More lessons to be learned

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OF THE various inquiries into the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) outbreak — and there were quite a few — it was, perhaps, the ‘Lessons to be learned inquiry’, conducted by Dr Iain Anderson, that attracted most attention at the time. This was the inquiry charged with examining the Government's handling of the crisis and, as such, was of particular interest to those who had been caught up in events as they unfolded. As Dr Anderson memorably remarked when his report was published in 2002, ‘The fmd epidemic of 2001 was an emergency which became a crisis. And, in some parts of the country, it was a crisis which became a disaster.’ His report covered all stages of the epidemic, from the moment when fmd was first suspected through to the last case and beyond. As the title implied, its purpose was to learn the lessons of 2001 and to make recommendations aimed at ensuring that a disaster on this scale never happened again (see VR, August 17, 2002, vol 151, pp 191–195).

This year's outbreak of fmd in Surrey has been very different from the outbreak of 2001, in both circumstances and scale. Nevertheless, it seems fitting that, having reported on events in 2001, Dr Anderson should have been asked by the Government also to look into this year's outbreak. Specifically, he has been asked to review the Government's handling of the 2007 outbreak, to establish whether the relevant points from his previous report have been implemented, and to establish whether new lessons might be drawn from this year's experiences. The bva is among organisations that have submitted comments to his review, which was announced on October 1 and is expected to make recommendations to ministers before the end of this year (VR, October 13, 2007, vol 161, p 498).

Much has happened over the past six years and, in its submission, the bva says it is clear that lessons have been learned since 2001, particularly in the area of communication with stakeholders. Nevertheless, it makes a number of recommendations for improvement in this and other areas.

On communication, the bva says that, while things have improved, issues of quality versus the quantity of information have arisen in 2007, and that defra needs to achieve the right balance. defra's website, which was pretty basic in 2001, has since become a key source of information but, the bva says, could have been better managed. It points out that farmers without web access would struggle to keep up with developments, and expresses concern that many received no formal notification of the disease situation. Along with other stakeholders, the veterinary profession, through the bva's specialist divisions, appears to have been used as a conduit for information, and rightly so. However, the bva says, there is no formal recognition of this in the contingency plan, which needs to be developed so this role is made clear.

The availability of vets to help deal with the outbreak was a key issue in 2001 and would have again been an issue in 2007 if this year's outbreak had not been quickly contained. The importance of being able to mount a flexible response to disease outbreaks and being in a position to draft in extra vets as needed has been emphasised by the bva repeatedly since 2001 but, despite this, the process of recruitment is not included in the contingency plan. With the arrival of bluetongue and outbreaks of avian influenza in addition to fmd, resources in defra and Animal Health have been severely stretched in recent months. If Dr Anderson's review achieves only one thing, it should be to ensure that this issue is resolved. The bva's view is that experienced local veterinary inspectors, recruited from practices in the field, are the most appropriate people to help in disease emergencies, and that proper arrangements should be included in the contingency plan.

Other matters raised in the bva's submission, which can be viewed by members on the Association's website (, include difficulties arising as a result of the different application of disease restrictions in the devolved administrations of England, Scotland and Wales, and the need for more clarity in this area; questions regarding surveillance in view of the re-emergence of the disease in September after the original (August) outbreak was considered to have been dealt with; and factors to be considered with regard to emergency vaccination, where important practical and economic issues have still to be clarified. It also draws attention to the animal welfare consequences of the movement restrictions imposed as a result of the outbreak, and considers various issues regarding movement licensing.

Dr Anderson's report on the 2001 epidemic did not seek to blame individuals for the way the crisis was handled, arguing that many of those involved were working in ‘sometimes desperate, almost impossible, circumstances’. In its submission to his latest review, the bva argues that a ‘blame culture’ should also be avoided in the aftermath of the 2007 outbreak. It draws attention to the high quality of the work undertaken on the Pirbright site, from which the virus is believed to have escaped, and its importance to animal health worldwide. It suggests, however, that there may have been long-term underfunding of this internationally renowned facility and that, if this is the case, lessons must be learned for all similar facilities supported by government funds. It would certainly be unfortunate if, as a result of this year's outbreak, the kind of work undertaken by Pirbright were in any way curtailed. If that were to happen, this year's disease emergency could also turn into disaster, albeit a disaster of a different kind.

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