Making a drama out of a crisis

At every stage, the panic over foot-and-mouth has run ahead of the disease. Is it any wonder we are now in such a mess?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

We are now in our seventh week of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). The crisis has had the government’s full attention and saturation media coverage. Yet on many of the issues to do with the causes of the disease and the best methods of containing it, we seem more confused than ever.

The cause of the outbreak has been blamed on everything from Chinese restaurants to modern methods of food production to ramblers to wind (Sheep, pigs and scapegoats). Funeral pyres were supposed to be the best way to dispose of diseased corpses, then they were accused of helping to spread the disease. Burial has alternately been promoted as better and derided as more polluting.

In the beginning, there was no vaccine capable of dealing with this strain of foot-and-mouth; then there was. Selective vaccination was going to be used; then it wasn’t. Farmers weren’t supposed to move livestock around – now they are, according to the farmers, but not according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff). People weren’t supposed to move around the countryside – now they are, according to the government, but not according to local authorities, some of which are fiercely resisting schemes to open up the land.

Now we hear that foot-and-mouth may finally be coming under control; that the disease has peaked two months earlier than anticipated. The government warns against ‘complacency’ – just a few days after UK prime minister Tony Blair counselled us to keep the problem ‘in perspective’.

How did we get into this mess of contradiction and confusion? There is clearly no doubt about the severity of this outbreak of foot-and-mouth, which has topped 1000 cases in less than two months and brought devastation to farmers across the country. But the collapse of rural tourism, the postponement of the general election, the palpable sense of national depression and confusion – all this was not simply a response to a livestock disease.

A glance back to those happy days when foot-and-mouth was just two cases, and not an epidemic, reveals just how quickly a drama was made out of this crisis – before even it was a crisis. At every stage, the panic about foot-and-mouth has run ahead of the disease. The predisposition to believe that things could only get worse was as infectious as the virus – and as the doom-laden predictions blew on the wind, it was only a matter of time before they became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On Wednesday 21 February, the newspapers reported the first cases of foot-and-mouth disease at an abattoir and a farm south of Brentwood, Essex. A veterinary inspection at the abattoir on Monday 19 February had found suspected symptoms of FMD in 27 pigs (1).

By Thursday 22 February, no new cases of foot-and-mouth had yet been confirmed. But the news headlines all led in the same direction – preparing for a national disaster. As Tony Gilland wrote on spiked, while the number of cases of foot-and-mouth that would develop was impossible to predict, the response to the limited number of cases so far indicated that the panic ‘seems certain to reach epidemic proportions’ (Foot-and-mouth disease – let’s come to our senses).

The Daily Telegraph’s headlines of 22 February included ‘Britain in foot-and-mouth crisis’; ’Quarantined farms stare disaster in the face’, and ‘”Disease and ministry dithering will ruin large numbers of farmers”’ (2). The Independent headlined its front page article ‘Farmers “staring into abyss” after all exports are banned’ (3). The spiked award for the most convoluted headline, though, goes to the Mirror: ‘DON’T PANIC: Food safe…but foot-and-mouth farmers face ruin’. Inside the paper, a double-page spread was headlined ‘Plague on the land’ (4).

On 22 February, too, most of the national papers carried stories of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, which lasted from 25 October 1967 until 4 June 1968 (5).

‘The last time: 430,000 animals die, huge areas shut and it costs millions’, shouted the Mirror’s headline, reporting that the ‘Great Cattle Plague’ of 1967 broke out in 2364 locations and cost the UK an estimated £150million in slaughter costs and £27million in compensation (6). In a piece headlined ‘The smoke of pyres drifted everywhere’ and illustrated by a picture of animal carcasses piled on railway sleepers before being burned, the Guardian’s John Vidal reported on ‘The last time: 1967 epidemic left farmers traumatised’ (7). The Telegraph, too, reported on the 1967 ‘plague’ (8).

By the following Monday, as the first fires were lit, and as the number of foot-and-mouth cases mounted, the scenes did indeed seem straight out of 1967. But how did anybody know that, with the discovery of only two cases? Why did the focus leap to 1967 – rather than what was really the ‘last time’ foot-and-mouth broke out, in 1981?

The 1981 outbreak on the Isle of Wight was rather more hidden in the news reports. On this occasion, admitted the Mirror, foot-and-mouth was ‘rapidly stamped out’ (9). ‘Two hundred cattle and 369 pigs were destroyed’, reported the Telegraph, noting that the government sealed off the Isle of Wight and surrounding parts of Hampshire and Dorset (10).

What the 1981 outbreak showed was that foot-and-mouth was not always a crisis -that it could just be a problem, to sort out and make disappear. Yet before anything was known about the scale of the current outbreak, the national imagination leapt straight to 1967, with its dramatic scenes of misery and destruction. This tells us little about the peculiarities of this particular outbreak, but a great deal about the cautious mindset of contemporary society.

As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick has explained, contemporary society is suffering from a level of risk-aversion that gives every doomsday scenario a more than willing audience (Second opinion 13 February 2001). In the current climate of social and political malaise, the emergence of diseases like foot-and-mouth or BSE reinforce this fatalistic and despairing mood. Whereas in 1967, as Brendan O’Neill has reported, national public life went on despite the scale of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, (When foot-and-mouth didn’t make the front page) in 2001 it only takes a breath of disease to fuel a panic about everything under the sun.

‘Could food shortages be next?’, cried the Daily Mail on 24 February. ‘Stocks of fresh produce, particularly bacon and ham, could be running low within a week to 10 days, especially if panic buying starts’, it warned (11). The Mail was not the only paper to stoke up fears of panic buying: the Daily Express’ front page cautioned ‘No meat left by end of the week’ (12), while the Sunday Mirror the following day reported that sales of beef, lamb and pork had risen by up to 50 percent as ‘Shoppers panic buy over foot-and-mouth’ (13).

As quickly as 26 February, the Guardian was reporting that there were, after all, ‘little signs of panic buying’ (14) – and seven weeks on, we see the supermarket shelves as full of cut-price meat as ever. The only reason to panic about panic-buying was, it seems, the desire to panic about something. Because this problem never materialised, this particular panic died. But others took hold with a vengeance.

If panic buying was the story that never was, panic closing was the story that became the reality that became the problem – that then became the story. If ever an example was needed of how talking up a crisis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is the fate of UK tourism at Easter 2001.

On the evening of 22 February, Maff issued ‘a major alert to anybody who has contact with the countryside’, and urged that ‘unnecessary visits to farmland should be avoided’ (15).

The news headlines echoed the message. ‘”STAY OUT OF THE COUNTRYSIDE”’, the Evening Standard warned its metropolitan readers (16). ‘KEEP OUT!’, cried the Mirror. (17) ‘If you live in town, STAY THERE’, called the Sun. ‘If you live in sticks, STAY THERE.’ (18) Local authorities and sporting bodies cooperated too, cancelling and postponing the unlikeliest of risky events from indoor bowls to the Crufts dog show (National life is indefinitely postponed).

Would it really have taken that much forethought to realise that the creation of ‘No-go Britain’, as the Daily Express put it (19), would do some damage to UK tourism? As the paper later argued, tourism is a far more significant industry than farming – bringing in £13billion annually compared to farming’s £500million (20). But as Mick Hume put it, when Tony Blair told the House of Commons in March that local elections set for May should go ahead, to help persuade tourists that Britain remains open for business, ‘I wonder who could have given them the idea that the entire country was in quarantine?’ (An outbreak of anti-election fever)

Now the government has decided to postpone the elections anyway, no number of Gummer-esque stunts, like the PM visiting York to show how safe and nice the countryside really is, are going to work. As the Independent’s Ben Russell reports, record numbers of those naughty tourists – about 1.75million, according to the Association of British Travel Agents – are planning to flee Britain for Easter ‘despite government appeals for people to support rural tourism in Britain’ (21).

The cost so far to the tourist industry is estimated to top £2billion – a cost set only to rise, as the frantic measures currently being taken to open up the countryside seem likely only to make a UK holiday less attractive (On holiday in foot-and-mouth country) Meanwhile, far from the problem of foot-and-mouth having been put in perspective, the stories just get more bizarre.

We’ve seen the Gurkhas sent to the Black Mountains to round up sheep, and TV pictures of a hopeful Tony Blair grabbing a Japanese tourist for a photo-shoot – only to find out he was a TV reporter. We’ve seen Misty the pet goat, ‘murdered by Maff’ – the owners of which received a great deal more sympathy than the relatives of the official slaughterman killed after being shot with a boltgun. We’ve had the leader of the opposition demand that Tony Blair forget the election and get his hands dirty on foot-and-mouth – then demand that Tony Blair forgets foot-and-mouth and turns the crisis over to the army.

It’s tempting to say that things can only get better. But in a nation apparently so keen to embrace disaster, who could be so sure?

Read on:

Foot-and-mouth issue

(1) Financial Times 21 February 2001

(2) Daily Telegraph 22 February 2001

(3) Independent 22 February 2001

(4) Mirror 22 February 2001

(5) Guardian 22 February 2001

(6) Mirror 22 February 2001

(7) Guardian 22 February 2001

(8) Telegraph 22 February 2001

(9) Mirror 22 February 2001

(10) Telegraph 22 February 2001

(11) Daily Mail 24 February 2001

(12) Daily Express 24 February 2001

(13) Sunday Mirror 25 February 2001

(14) Guardian 26 February 2001

(15) Financial Times 23 February 2001

(16) Evening Standard 22 February 2001

(17) Mirror 23 February 2001

(18) Sun 23 February 2001

(19) Daily Express 27 February 2001

(20) Daily Express 11 April 2001

(21) Independent 11 April 2001

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Topics Politics


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