According to the Independent (HERE), “Government Ministers” (why be so coy about which ones?, one is driven to ask) are frustrated that the Health & Safety Executive has thus far in its investigations failed to blame the owner of the commercial laboratory on the Pirbright site, Merial, for being the cause of the outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease in Surrey.

Although the interim report of Dr. Paul Logan, investigating on behalf of the HSE, cautiously lifts the finger of suspicion from the Government-run lab of the Institute of Animal Health, it does not definitively nail Merial’s lab as the source of the outbreak, preferring instead to indicate that further work is still to be done.

Why be frustrated? Surely what we want is for Dr. Logan to do his job thoroughly and to get it right. Those who genuinely wish to see the source of the outbreak of this awful disease discovered should be supportive of the ‘take as long as you need, but get it right’ school rather than the ‘let’s have a scapegoat as soon as possible’ school to which the “Government Ministers” so evidently belong.

It is unsurprising that these “Government Ministers” want someone other than themselves to blame and for them to come out squeaky clean from this whole ghastly mess, smelling, not of fresh cow-pats, but of good old-fashioned roses. Gone, long gone are the days when Nincompoops owned up to Nincompoopery and went off to spend more time with their families.

Sadly for them, as they appear not yet to have appreciated, it is not like that at all. On this occasion they will be the first species in the food chain that journalists go looking for as the press and others look for the correct apportionment of blame in this matter. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly it is the Government and the Government alone which has ultimate responsibility for the legislative framework within which such laboratories (some kind person will doubtless now pop up and tell me that the EU actually controls all of this, which would not surprise me in the least) operate and is responsible for providing and funding the supervisory regime which oversees biosecurity in general and this laboratory in particular, whether that be the HSE, The Environment Agency or whoever.

Secondly the fact of the matter is that we had, in 2001, the worst outbreak ever in modern times of FMD. Incredibly no proper wide-ranging public enquiry was held into that outbreak: incredibly but unsurprisingly since the Government, one suspects, had just a bit of an inkling that such an enquiry might have been very very bad for them and the public’s perception of their incompetence might have risen to dizzying new heights just in time for an election, which would have been very bad for the ‘Snouts in Trough’ brigade of ministers anxious to cling by their fingertips to their offices.

But the fact of that outbreak ought, and this is not exactly rocket science, I suggest, to have put ministers on notice to examine every last aspect of the management and control of this disease, including, for example, whether this Laboratory was being adequately maintained and its biosecurity being kept up to date and whether, indeed, it ought to be in an area of the country surrounded by dozens of farms raising dairy and beef cattle, sheep and pigs and which is highly-populated by people prone to walking their dogs along the footpaths over such farms and, remarkably for so populated an area, still well-stocked with wild animals such as Roe Deer, fox, badger and so on, anyone of which might act, in the event of an escape of the virus, as a vector for the disease to move from being a captive threat to a live scourge in the wild.

There must, given the nature of this outbreak coming as it does just a few years after the last outbreak, once this is done and dusted, be a full public enquiry into the Government’s handling of this and the 2001 outbreak. And if the Government’s handling of the legislative framework and the supervision of this disease (and of the many other threats to animal health such as BSE, Swine Vesicular Disease, Newcastle’s disease in chickens and so forth) is found to have been defective, then blame must be apportioned. If they think they can inevitably avoid blame in this case, I believe they are mistaken because, notwithstanding their attempts to place the buffers of the HSE, The Environment Agency and Merial in between them and blame (and just watch as each of those is fingered in turn for ultimate responsibility), on this occasion ultimate overall responsibility is theirs and theirs alone.

One aspect of this case which is of more general application, is the modern tendency of Governments to farm out all sorts of responsibilities, such as supervisory or management functions, to ‘independent’ agencies (although this never seems to lead to any diminution in the number of people employed by the civil service) upon which the Government of the day is very quick to fasten blame should things go wrong, as Minister’s opine “Not me Guv!” when the inquisitors come a-calling. It will come as no surprise if, as has been rumoured to be the case, the NHS gets put in the hands of an ‘independent’ agency (chaired and managed by Labour Placemen, you may be sure, but they are, of course, expendable) which will enable incompetent nincompoop ministers such as Patricia Hewitt to distance themselves from whatever disaster is currently engulfing our medical services. One might add that we are not in the least taken in by such attempts to evade responsibility and blame by the use of such smoke and mirrors.

For further excellent probing of this outbreak I commend readers to look at the sites of Jonathan Miller (not the polymath but a journalist with an enquiring and sceptical mind) (HERE) and Mary Critchley at Warmwell (HERE)

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