A National Audit Office report to Parliament today on the handling of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak showed that the outbreak cost the public sector over £3 billion and the private sector more than £5 billion.
According to head of the NAO Sir John Bourn, lessons to be learned from the outbreak, unprecedented in its nature and scale, included the need for more thorough contingency planning, more sensitive to outbreaks of different scales, which would allow better preparedness for a future outbreak. In addition, in the event of a crisis, plans should be made to ensure that cost and financial control should not fall below a minimum standard.
Preparations for a possible outbreak of foot and mouth disease
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) had prepared contingency plans that met European Union requirements. These plans worked in those areas where there were relatively few cases. However, the unprecedented scale of the outbreak meant that in many areas the resources needed to deal with the disease rapidly went beyond what had been envisaged in contingency plans.
According to today’s report, it is unrealistic to expect that any contingency plan could have coped with all the problems and difficulties that arose or that the Department could have forecast the nature of the 2001 outbreak. In the light of Britain’s experiences many countries are revising their contingency plans. Nevertheless there are lessons to be learned in preparing contingency plans for the future.
- The contingency plans were based on the most likely scenario and other scenarios were not considered. In line with European Commission guidance, the Department’s plans were based on the supposition that there would not be more than ten infected premises at any one time. (In this outbreak there were at least 57 infected premises before initial diagnosis.)
- Little prior consideration had been given to the impact on non-farming businesses that a large-scale epidemic might have. For example, the initial blanket closure of most footpaths by local authorities had a very severe effect on the rural tourist industry.
- An internal report in 1999 found considerable variations in the State Veterinary Service’s readiness to deal with outbreaks of exotic notifiable diseases, including foot and mouth. By July 2000 the Department had made progress on many action areas but implementation of other key issues was delayed by the need to attend to other high priority work.
- Tackling a serious outbreak of animal disease requires effective co-operation with other government departments and agencies and those affected. These stakeholders were not formally consulted in preparing contingency plans, although some had been involved in simulation exercises as part of local contingency planning.
The report recognises that the Department has prepared an Interim Operational Contingency Plan which codifies lessons learned during the 2001 outbreak, which will be reviewed once the findings of the independent inquiries have been published.
Handling the outbreak
Foot and mouth disease was eradicated in two months or less in around half the infected areas. The Department successfully contained the outbreak substantially to those areas initially infected with the disease and was also successful in ensuring that once the disease had been stamped out in an area it did not reappear. The disease was eradicated in seven months, the same time that it took to deal with the smaller and more localised outbreak in 1967-68. The report notes the commitment and dedication of the Department’s staff and that those involved worked punishingly long days in stressful and often distressing conditions.
Because of the widespread ‘seeding’ of the virus before it was discovered (48 premises in 15 counties had already been seeded before 19 February 2001 when disease was first suspected) there were severe problems in handling the outbreak in the worst-hit areas.
- It took time to get other agencies involved. The Department liaised with the armed services and other Government Departments and agencies from the outset but decided not to call for substantial military assistance for three weeks. This was because the Government considered that the early stages of the epidemic presented no obvious requirement for military participation.
- Vets played a key role but in the early weeks there were too few of them and this delayed disease control. The Chief Veterinary Officer called on agreed standby arrangements nationally and internationally from 23 February 2001. By mid-April 2001 the Department had the number of vets it felt were needed to contain the outbreak.
- A national movement ban (on 23 February 2001) prevented greater spread of the disease but with hindsight should have been imposed earlier in this outbreak. A national ban would have been unprecedented and the Department considered that the epidemiological evidence at the time did not exist to justify it.
- Communications and information systems were severely stretched during the epidemic. The Department found it difficult in the crisis conditions to get its key instructions and messages across and to obtain good quality information from the field.
Controlling the costs of the outbreak
Farmers received over £1.1 billion in compensation for animals that were slaughtered for disease control purposes and over £200 million for animals slaughtered for welfare reasons. Many farmers and rural business suffered consequential losses to which they were not entitled to compensation. The Government introduced a series of measures to alleviate the financial difficulties of small businesses.
The sheer volume of cases put compensation schemes under enormous pressure and this led to costs being higher than they might otherwise have been in more normal circumstances.
- The professional valuers who determined compensation tended to make higher valuations as more and more animals were slaughtered because they expected increased prices for stock when the markets reopened. Standard rates for slaughtered animals were introduced on 22 March 2001 because the valuation process was thought to be delaying the slaughter of animals on infected premises. The standard rates acted as a floor for valuations and contributed to a rise in the compensation paid.
- The Department introduced the livestock welfare disposal scheme to alleviate the suffering of animals who were not directly affected by foot and mouth disease but who could not be moved because of movement restrictions. The rates were extremely attractive to farmers and the volume of applications overwhelmed the Rural Payments Agency, who administered the scheme.
The total bill for measures to deal with the epidemic is expected to reach nearly £1.3 billion by the time all claims are settled. The largest items are £375 million for haulage and disposal – including £113 million on mass burial pits – and £304 million on cleansing and disinfecting. Large numbers of staff had to be brought together quickly and deployed across the country and a wide range of goods and services procured to meet urgent demands. Consequently systems of cost and financial control were put under great strain:
- The Department recognised that it might have to pay a premium to get things done at maximum possible speed. Valuers, slaughterers and private vets, without whom the disease could not have been eradicated, all demanded and received higher fee rates.
- Many contracts, which would normally be put out to tender, were awarded without competition. Aspects of some contracts were initially agreed orally. When some contracts came to be written and formalised it was sometimes difficult for the parties involved to recall the detail of what had been agreed. This later gave rise to many disputes about payment for work done.
- Information was often lacking to support the payment of bills. The Department was frequently unable to monitor the work being carried out by contractors, especially the slaughter and disposal of animals, and the cleansing and disinfection of farms.
After the difficulties experienced in the early weeks, the Department took action to control the costs of the outbreak. This included setting up a dedicated financial unit and reorganising financial responsibilities. Forensic accountants have also been employed to examine the invoices of the largest contractors.