Hard times

Published : Apr 14, 2001 00:00 IST

As the foot-and-mouth disease situation worsens in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans to seek a re-election in May suffer a setback.

IT is one of the worst disaster stories to come out of Britain in recent years and its effect on the British psyche is proving to be as debilitating as its economic and political cost. The image of "Cool Britannia", blessed with a picturesque countryside, and as the preferred destination of well-heeled international tourists, has taken a beating as the country is ravaged by the foot-and-mouth epidemic, now in its sixth week. Shunned by tourists, blamed by its European neighbours for exporting the disease to them and widely seen overseas as being closed to business, the national mood is one of all-pervasive gloom and shame. Britons travelling abroad say they feel humiliated when directed at American and European airports to walk over the "disinfectant" mats. A newspaper survey showed that even people of the Third World were beginning to turn up their noses.

When the first case of foot-and-mouth disease was reported in February, it was widely seen as an aberration and even the gloomiest of forecasts did not anticipate that it would spread so rapidly and on such a scale. In the event, it is turning out to be as serious as the 1967 epidemic, until now regarded as the worst. Vast stretches of the British countryside is out of bounds, more than a million head of cattle have been slaughtered and the mass cull is likely to continue until the disease is brought fully under control. According to experts, bringing the disease under control could take several months. Farmers who had barely recovered from the effects of the mad cow disease when the epidemic struck say that they face ruin, many of them having lost their entire livestock. Rural tourism, which should have been in full bloom at this time of the year, is down to its knees as hotels, pubs and tourist attractions are closed and sports events cancelled. A rough estimate puts the total loss to the farming and tourism industry at over 9 billion.

However, what is worrying the Tony Blair government most is the political cost of the situation. The crisis has already overshadowed Blair's carefully worked out plans for an early return to a second term in office, and for the first time since he came to power four years ago, he finds himself struggling to prove his mettle as a crisis manager. The foot-and-mouth epidemic is his government's first major crisis and it is widely seen to have mishandled the matter inviting the charge of "complacency", "insensitivity" and "arrogance". According to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Newsnight poll, nearly 70 per cent of the people are dissatisfied with the government's handling of the epidemic. Although Labour continues to lead in the opinion polls in the build-up to the elections, the longer the crisis lasts the more the party is likely to become vulnerable to the mood swings of the voters. Hence Blair's keenness to be done with the elections as soon as possible. According to a Times-MORI poll published on March 29, the Labour lead over the Conservatives was still intact with 50 per cent of the people saying that they would vote for Labour if elections were to be held "tomorrow". "The striking feature of the poll is that Labour has maintained its ratings despite widespread public criticism of its handling of the foot-and-mouth outbreak... The public is also dissatisfied rather than satisfied with the way the government is running the country... But even with these negative attitudes people still have a low opinion of the Tories as an alternative," The Times said. (By the first week of April, Blair had more or less decided to have the elections delayed until June.)

On the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the main criticism was that the government woke up to the crisis late, and even as the disease was raging, Ministers were glibly saying that it was under control. In the first few weeks of the crisis, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown handled the matter all by himself when it was clear to everyone that the situation warranted a bigger and more coordinated effort. Unlike other European countries which moved swiftly and succeeded in nipping the disease in the bud, the British government's initial response was slow and bureaucratic. For instance, the decision to cordon off much of the countryside and advise people to stay off had the effect of scaring away tourists, a decision which the government is ruing today. Although the government is now trying hard to dispel the impression that Britain is closed to tourists (British diplomats have been advised to spread the message that their country is still very much in business), the damage has been done. Hotels have reported mass cancellation of bookings, and the forecast is that this is going to be one of the leanest tourist seasons in recent memory.

The alarm bells started ringing in Downing Street only when the disease began to spread to Ireland and Scotland, and Britain's European partners, apart from slapping a ban on all food imports from the country, started to blame their own troubles on London. Added to this was the pressure from the multi-billion pound tourist industry and Blair's fear of its impact on his election timetable. However, by then the crisis was in its fourth week and nearly out of control. Blair got a taste of the public mood when on his first visit to a foot-and-mouth affected area, he was booed and greeted with abuse. A visibly shaken Blair then ordered an all-out war against the disease. However, in doing so he nearly touched off a farmers' revolt. The decision to slaughter hundreds of healthy animals simply because they happened to be within three miles (4.8 km) of the infected "exclusion zones" provoked widespread fury with farmers threatening to stop the killings physically. There was talk of "riots" if farmers were forced to hand over their healthy cattle for slaughter. Blair was accused of trying to speed up things in order to be able to hold elections on his most favoured date of May 3. It took some delicate backroom tactics to persuade the farmers to fall in line. In an attempt to underline the government's sense of urgency, Blair cut short his stay at the European Union summit in Stockholm and returned home to take control of the situation.

Critics say that the crisis would not have assumed the current proportions had Blair displayed the same sense of urgency two weeks earlier. For once the Opposition caught the public mood right. The Tories echoed the widespread view that measures such as calling in the troops to help with the disposal of slaughtered animals (the Tories claimed that they had made this suggestion right in the beginning) and vaccinating the cattle should have been taken up much earlier. The Tory leader Willam Hague and his shadow Agriculture Secretary Tim Yeo accused the government of doing too little too late. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has been attacked by the Opposition and experts for not learning any lessons from the 1967 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. Tim Yeo even charged it with "extraordinary incompetence". A former MAFF official described the Ministry as the "Siberia of Whitehall", alleging that it was full of bumbling bureaucrats who did not see beyond red tape. A campaign has started to demand the abolition of the Ministry and its replacement by a Ministry of Rural Affairs.

The media have highlighted the fact that the Ministry ignored the warnings of its own experts. Way back in 1997, an experts committee called for a total ban on pigswill, a mixture of leftovers and waste food fed to pigs, but the government did not act. Now it has emerged that pigswill used in a farm in Northumberland was most probably the source of infection. The government is now contemplating a ban on pigswill. The government has also been alleged of having been lax in ensuring that meat from foot-and-mouth disease prone regions of the world does not get into the country. A report in The Guardian said: "Thousands of consignments of illegal meat arrive in Britain travelling in either containers or hand luggage mainly from Africa and Asia - continents with recent outbreaks of foot and mouth disease." The pigswill which set the foot-and-mouth chain reaction was alleged to have come from contaminated meat smuggled into Britain from the Far East and served at a Chinese restaurant in northeast England. The Association of Port Health Authorities has called for more stringent measures to prevent the illegal entry of meat, especially from countries where the foot-and-mouth disease is endemic. The key issue, according to a member of the Pig Producers' Association, is "how the hell did this get into Britain in the first place?"

Meanwhile, a counterview that the crisis was exaggerated thanks to a strong and pampered farmers' lobby has emerged. It is said that the footage of burning pyres and farmers sobbing as their cattle were taken away for slaughter turned a provincial crisis - less than one per cent of the country's livestock was believed to be affected - into a national emergency. However, the plight of 60,000 steel workers who lost their jobs recently went nearly unnoticed because, as one critic said, there were no cameras to record their grief. Livestock farming is said to be the most subsidised industry and yet it is forever pretending to carry the cross for everyone else. In an article in The Times, one of Britain's most respected commentators, Simon Jenkins, accused farmers of "blackmailing" the nation. "The Labour government is being held to ransom by livestock farmers much as Tory governments were held to ransom by coalminers. Farming communities cry in aid of the same 'national interest'. They evince the same emotivesupport from the media. Ministers have no friends and no clue which way to turn," Jenkins wrote. The view was echoed by several others including another leading columnist Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. The point they make is that a harmless disease which - unlike the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) - does not kill, does not affect human beings and in fact grants a degree of immunity to the affected cattle has been projected as a monster devouring thousands of cattle. If farmers vaccinated their animal there would have been no foot-and-mouth disease, but they do not because, under international trading rules, they would lose their disease-free status and it would affect their export potential. "This debacle is not about human health, nor about animal welfare. It is about money," Jenkins said.

The crisis has also raised questions about the way farming is done in Britain - under pressure from supermarkets to produce cheap food. Critics are demanding a new look at farming techniques and there is a view that instead of tailoring production to the needs of the supermarket chains and the export markets, farmers should be encouraged to produce safe food. A debate has begun, but whether it would reach its logical conclusion is doubtful because, as one commentator put it, once the crisis is over and television cameras move on, it would be back to business as usual - until another crisis erupts.

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