Stamp out human foot’n’mouth fever

…before it spreads from Whitehall and Fleet St.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Are Britain’s government and media bodies at risk of being struck down by another dangerous outbreak of foot’n’mouth fever – a condition which afflicts the human nervous system, leading to irrationally overblown behaviour in response to any sign of an animal disease?

Since a case of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was reported on a British farm, everybody has been emphasising the need to ‘learn the lessons’ of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, when millions of animals were slaughtered and burning pyres of carcasses across the countryside darkened Britain’s image at home and abroad. What most mean is that we need what one expert called more ‘draconian’ measures this time, to hit the disease hard and fast and stop it spreading. Several of these have already been imposed, with local culls and bans on moving livestock anywhere in the UK.

The other, more important, lesson to be learned from 2001, however, is the need to avoid outbreaks of human foot’n’mouth fever in reaction to any mention of FMD.

Let’s be clear from the start that two separate but connected issues are under discussion here. First there is the real foot-and-mouth, an animal disease with no known easy route to infect humans, and no very serious repercussions in the rare cases when it does manage to cross over. In this sense it is even less dangerous to human health than the overblown risk of bird flu. What is more, FMD is normally a non-fatal animal disease. It certainly has a grim impact on the milk and meat production of infected animals, so must be contained to protect the farmers. But once infected animals have been culled, the meat could even be safely cooked and eaten.

Then there is foot’n’mouth fever, a modern and entirely human condition that now tends to emerge in response to any sign of the actual disease. Those suffering this condition talk in doom-laden tones that make foot-and-mouth sound as if it were the Black Death in sheep’s clothing. They turn an animal disease into a focus for society’s wider insecurities and fears, with dangerous consequences. That is what happened so graphically in 2001, as foot’n’mouth fever spread way ahead of the animal disease itself.

Back then the FMD outbreak somehow sparked what I described at the time as a national nervous breakdown, an extraordinary epidemic of panic measures that effectively left the countryside closed to outsiders, and much of the entire country’s public life closed down. There were bans and restrictions everywhere, many of which – from disinfectant mats at airports to city zoo closures – seemed to owe more to superstition than science. This outbreak of foot’n’mouth fever culminated in the New Labour government’s decision to postpone the 2001 General Election – an extraordinary response to a farmyard infection. Meanwhile, army snipers were sent into the countryside, and crack Gurkha troops patrolled the Welsh hills looking for stray ‘invading’ sheep, with their famous kukri knives rather than Little Bo Peep-style shepherd’s crooks. (See A national nervous breakdown, by Mick Hume.)

The national nervous breakdown took on a life of its own, separate from and running way ahead of the progress of the animal disease itself. Things came to a head after a car and train crash in Yorkshire, which many commentators sought to link with foot-and-mouth and the bad weather as somehow connected signs of a country in crisis. The queen issued a bizarre-sounding message of condolence over the train crash, noting that it was ‘a particularly shocking tragedy, coming on top of so much anxiety and loss from the foot-and-mouth outbreak and, before that, the recent floods’. What possible connection could there be between these three events, and how exactly did an animal disease or a flood make a fatal train crash any more tragic? Yet for once, the queen really did speak for many. Her message captured the widespread sense of things falling apart that had headline writers screaming about ‘Apocalypse Cow’ while radio phone-in hosts tearfully announced that ‘we just can’t go on like this’ as foot’n’mouth fever took hold.

This time the FMD incidence has been very small by comparison with 2001, yet there were immediately visible symptoms of another outbreak of foot’n’mouth fever. Barely had the news of a case of FMD broken before prime minister Gordon Brown had cancelled his holiday in Dorset and rushed back, with top ministers in tow, to take charge of the ‘crisis’ (perhaps he now has the excuse for not calling that October election….) From the start, news coverage emphasised that this was a national tragedy in the making, with government and farming officials talking about the ‘devastating’ impact, while reporters were dispatched to present TV new bulletins from the ‘front line’ – a lane outside the infected Surrey farm.

It is striking how this case of foot-and-mouth has been talked about almost as if it were a foreign invasion or terrorist attack. Everybody now demands more measures to improve something called Britain’s ‘bio-security’. The fact that Brown rushed back to London to chair meetings of the state’s top emergency committee, Cobra – a body normally heard of in response to terrorist attacks – reinforced the impression that this was a ‘war against FMD’. Some punters interviewed in local pubs for television news seemed to get into the Blitz spirit of the day, declaring their determination to ‘carry on with our way of life’ as if it were a bombing campaign on public transport being discussed. Such links should come as no surprise; since 2001 (the date of both the last FMD outbreak and the 9/11 attacks), many scaremongering ‘what if?’ scenarios have speculated about possible future use of the animal disease by terrorists.

As media Brown-nosing continues, the government has again been praised, with many seeking to contrast Brown’s response with that of his predecessor – for example, using scientists to front press conferences. In fact, the official response shows that, despite differences of style, there is a basic continuity between the Blair and Brown governments in their near-paranoid attitudes to risk and security. Blair’s New Labour government imposed all those knee-jerk controls and measures in 2001 in a desperate effort to appear in control, fearing more than anything that it might be accused of not taking sufficient precautions. The effect was the opposite of what was intended: far from reassuring anybody, it signalled to all that Britain was in crisis. Little wonder that tourists turned away in droves from a country that appeared to be in the grip of foot’n’mouth fever from the top downwards.

This time, Brown’s government has acted out of the same instincts, albeit with slightly less of the circus about it. Brown’s rapid return to chair Cobra in response to a far smaller outbreak was no doubt partly prompted by fear that he might be accused of swanning about on holiday while the countryside burned. But it was also an attempt to use the issue to assert his authority, to look serious and commanding in a crisis. The result, however, was to raise the temperature further, give the impression that a serious crisis was afoot, and exacerbate the damaging consequences for the farming industry.

These responses are political interventions based on the climate of the times. They are not in any sense determined by the nature of the disease. During the 2001 outbreak, spiked pointed to the glaring contrast with the previous serious occurrence of FMD in Britain, back in 1967. Then, while the disease wreaked havoc in the countryside, it hardly made the front pages of the national newspapers, which were preoccupied with more important matters of politics, economics and war. Brendan O’Neill observed that, on 31 October 1967, the official description of FMD as having reached ‘epidemic proportions’ was reported in just 86 words on page 2 of The Times. Nor, unlike in 2001, was there any question of postponing elections or any other major public events in 1967. (See When foot-and-mouth didn’t make the front page, by Brendan O’Neill.)

There is no necessary link between FMD and an outbreak of foot’n’mouth fever – that is determined by the political conditions in which the disease takes hold. Current political conditions were illustrated once more this week by reactions to news that a laboratory researching vaccines for FMD might have inadvertently infected the nearby Surrey farm. There have been loud calls, led by the opportunist opposition parties, for ever-tighter ‘bio-security’, and demands for the government to take even more precautionary measures to ensure that such an unusual accident ‘never happens again’ (perhaps they should relocate all laboratories on to a rock in the North Sea). If the lab is proved to be responsible, however, some might think there is a different lesson to be learned – about the bitter irony of the cautious ‘never again’ emphasis on developing vaccines itself leading to a rare reappearance of FMD.

If we take a step back, what exactly has happened? To date, FMD has been found in two animals on one small farm, and there is a suspected outbreak on another small farm nearby. They are not in the midst of a hard-pressed farming community but in an area of leafy suburban Surrey where almost nobody lives on the land. It is a worry for many meat and dairy farmers elsewhere of course – but the threat to their markets so far comes more from the control measures imposed by government and the European Union than from the disease. These need to be resolved as quickly as possible.

For the rest of us, a local case of FMD is really nothing much to worry about. It would be good if we could stamp out not just the disease, but the shrill headlines, the security committee briefings, the apparent determination to turn a small crisis into a major melodrama. However this rare appearance of foot-and-mouth disease ends, the early signs of foot’n’mouth fever we have already seen are the latest symptoms of an unhealthy body politic.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Sandy Starr asked who is responsible for foot-and-mouth?. Brendan O’Neill looked back to the 1967 foot-and-mouth outbreak. Michael Fitzpatrick saw the 2001 events as another outbreak of panic. In an interview with Tony Gilland, a former chief economist of the National Farmers’ Union said people had overreacted to foot-and-mouth. Or read more at spiked issue Animals.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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