With the news that the strain of FMD present in the cattle slaughtered in the Surrey outbreak of the disease is identical to one being used to produce vaccine at the Merial Laboratory at Pirbright, less than four miles from the site of the outbreak, the radar of politicians is, or ought to be, pinging away like mad. The joint presence of a directly Government run research facility at the site throws the Government directly into the mix.

The issues seem to be developing thus:

  1. The 2001 outbreak of FMD was one of the worst ever and caused enormous damage to the farming industry and to rural small businesses, already hard pressed by a long-term downturn. This outbreak put the Government, this Government, on notice that it must examine all aspects of the control of this and indeed all contagious diseases of livestock. Any reasonable observer would conclude that such a review must include a review of the funding of and the state of research facilities into these diseases and the regulatory/statutory controlling such facilities and procedures regarding biosecurity.

  1. On the face of it, whatever blandishments are put up by the Government and Merial concerning the level of and quality of biosecurity at the site, the fact of the matter is that this outbreak will almost certainly be attributed to the Pirbright site (it being of a strain last seen, it seems, in the 1967 outbreak and used in the production of vaccines but not otherwise seen in the field) and the implication of that is, prima facie, that there has been a serious breach of biosecurity at Pirbright.

  1. Quite apart from being generally put on notice by the 2001 outbreak (which, it will be recalled, was spectacularly mismanaged by Labour Ministers who were quite obviously out of their depth and wholly ignorant of how the countryside and agriculture actually works, unsurprising in a Party which has very few members who have little experience of the world outside our cities and towns), a review of this facility was undertaken in 2002 at which time there were reservations raised about the condition of the Pirbright site, the buildings at least being described, it seems, as ‘shabby’. If this is so it points to a possible culture of neglect in which, as one might imagine, inadequate funding plays a part. There have already been question marks over the adequacy of the funding to the Pirbright site. Sir Brian Follett, who conducted a Government inquiry into the 2001 outbreak, told The Daily Telegraph he had recommended in his report that it should be updated. Sir Brian said he considered ”the containment facilities” needed modernising and extending. And was this, in the light of the experience of the 2001 outbreak, an appropriate place to site such a laboratory, given the proximity of intensive livestock farming which might be affected by any such failure of biosecurity.

  1. This in turn raises the wider question of competence in Government. If the appalling failures of 2001 did not produce an acute tightening up of all aspects of disease control, one is bound to be alarmed at whether this Government can be trusted to have made adequate preparations for a Pandemic outbreak of Bird Flu or whether they have ensured adequate security for containment of bird flu. Coming on top of their handling of the floods crisis, a huge question mark over the Government’s general competence is raised.

  1. For Brown therefore the stakes a pretty high. For David Cameron this crisis is perhaps a make or break moment. Does he have the ability to mount and sustain an attack on the Government over a matter that is of the gravest nature? Does he have the ability seriously to damage the Government? Do his Shadow Ministers (chosen by him remember, so his judgement over their selection is on the line) have the ability to support their leader in mounting and sustaining such an attack? Does he have the ability to raise the attack above the inevitable accusations of ‘opportunism’ to a level which engages the whole nation in the issue of the Government’s competence?

It also offers a chance, if this can be developed into a general attack on competence, to revisit the whole floods issue and incompetence issues related thereto, as a means of recovering some of the ground that he undoubtedly lost over the Rwanda trip.

He must not be deflected by accusations that he is making political capital out of a national crisis. That is what opposition is about and he must now be seen to be making a good fist of this in the interests of his party’s morale, of damaging the Government and its standing with the electorate, and, to be candid, his leadership.

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