Things fall apart

'We seem to have lost sight of any distinction between rational measures to cope with an animal disease, and the irrational attempt to put the countryside (if not the entire country) into quarantine.'

With army snipers sent into the countryside, and pressure mounting to postpone the general election, we ask again: has war broken out in the UK without us being informed?

Is this really a rational response to a farm animal disease, the worst effect of which is usually to reduce animals’ milk and meat output?

The UK foot-and-mouth crisis shows how dangerous the obsessive culture of safety can be. It is now becoming clear that some of the measures imposed supposedly to contain the foot-and-mouth outbreak are causing far more damage than the disease itself.

Large areas of British life have effectively been closed down in response to foot-and-mouth (1). The tourism industry, which contributes about four times as much to the UK economy as farming, is already losing millions a week, with worse to come.

Those cancelling their holiday bookings, especially from Europe and America, are not being put off by the disease itself; after all, foot-and-mouth poses no threat to humans. It is more a reaction to the epidemic of panic that now has the UK in its grip, the sense that things here are falling apart, which has been widely reported in the European and US press. The UK is suffering the consequences of its national nervous breakdown.

Post-BSE, the UK government’s primary concern has been to be seen to leave nothing to chance. This safety-first strategy has backfired badly. The authorities have imposed all manner of measures, such as disinfectant at airports, that bear no relationship to the real spread or threat of the disease. The inevitable result has been, not to calm our uneasy society, but to fuel further fears and a sense of paranoia.

The more the government does, the more that is demanded of it. The Tories are so desperate for a popular cause that they will try to ride any wave of panic, however destructive the consequences. It was only a matter of time before they called for a national state of emergency to be imposed and the troops to be sent in to the countryside. Others in the media, meanwhile, have added fuel to the fires by blaming farmers for dragging the country into crisis.

We seem to have lost sight of any distinction between rational measures to cope with an animal disease, and the irrational attempt to put the countryside (if not the entire country) into quarantine. It is not foot-and-mouth that is running out of control, but the exaggerated reaction to it.

British society is now paying the price for the authorities’ endorsement of the ‘precautionary principle’ in science, agriculture and everything. The rapid progress of the foot-and-mouth panic suggests that, if we allow the attitude of ‘better safe than sorry’ to take hold, we will end up feeling very sorry and far from safe.
(1) See National life is indefinitely postponed, by Josie Appleton
Read on:
Minister: precautionary principle has ‘got out of hand’, by spiked-geist
Read more on the Foot-and-mouth issue

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