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The foot-and-mouth epidemic may be over but the effects can still be felt, says Christine Channon ...
The foot-and-mouth epidemic may be over but the effects can still be felt, says Christine Channon

The National Audit Office's report on the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic contains the defining image of the misery that engulfed rural Britain.

Piles of dead cattle are silhouetted by a fiery backdrop - some of the six million animals slaughtered in the crisis. It is a macabre shot of the giant pyres, which one witness in Devon CC's foot-and-mouth inquiry memorably described as 'barbaric and medieval'.

The report addresses the impact media images such as this and the closure of thousands of miles of footpaths had on the tourism industry.

But the media was reporting the grisly implementation of a flawed policy and councils were responding to a very clear government instruction to keep the public away from farmland.

These were the tumbling dominoes in a crumbling line, which had its origin in a near mythical contingency plan. Few outside the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food had even heard of this plan and it proved hopelessly inadequate.

The report reveals that the contingency plan assumed there would not be more than 10 infected farms at any one time. But at least 57 farms were already infected by the time the cause was diagnosed.

MAFF failed to properly assess the risk from a fast-moving outbreak and the huge rise in livestock movements caused by modern farming practices.

The consequences for Devon were devastating - a£313m hole in the local economy, 4,500 farms unable to trade and an 83% fall in holiday bookings. The waste and impact on human lives demands a full public inquiry.

I am proud of the community leadership shown by local government in mounting inquiries in Devon, Northumbria and Cumbria. The process has been cathartic for those who felt mangled by state machinery. It has also exposed many truths about the way the epidemic was mishandled. But this in no way excuses the need for a national public inquiry.

It is important Whitehall recognises that the pain did not end for the rural economy when the epidemic stopped. Research shows 3,000 jobs in Devon have been lost, largely due to foot-and-mouth, and many more people have lost seasonal and casual work, which is not reflected in official statistics.

Out of the crisis emerged an opportunity to create a stronger and more sustainable rural economy. In order to seize this opportunity, we need more allies such as rural affairs minister Alun Michael, and continued government support for councils' recovery initiatives.

Christine Channon (con)

Leader, Devon CC

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