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Update on Foot and Mouth Disease and Bluetongue

Volume 464: debated on Monday 8 October 2007

I would like to make a written statement on this summer’s outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in Surrey and on Bluetongue. This gives further detail and background to my oral statement of today.

On 3 August Foot and Mouth Disease was confirmed on a cattle farm in Surrey. In line with the contingency plan, control measures including a national ban on the movement of susceptible animals were put in place immediately.

DEFRA, Animal Health, local authorities, the voluntary sector and other partners across government, alongside the farming community, have worked hard to control and eradicate the disease. Working with the leaders of the farming and food chain industries, we have been able to identify welfare pressures, and on a risk basis allowed animal movements to take place under strict biosecurity conditions.

By 4 August we were able to confirm the strain of the virus as 01-BFS-67. As this strain was not currently circulating in animals, this pointed to the Pirbright laboratory site as a potential source of the outbreak. Therefore, I commissioned the Health and Safety Executive to investigate the potential release from the site, and Professor Brian Spratt to lead a team of experts in a review of biosecurity arrangements.

On 7 September we published the investigation report from the HSE, the review report by Professor Brian Spratt, and the epidemiological report from the National Emergency Epidemiology Group in DEFRA. I have place copies of all these reports in the House Library. They all concluded that the cause of the outbreak was almost certainly the escape of live virus from the Pirbright facility. As the House will be aware there are three parties on the Pirbright site all of which are known to have been using the 01-BFS-67 strain during the period when infection was most likely to have occurred—the Institute for Animal Health, a research institute sponsored and grant aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council which also owns the land and buildings on the site; and two private companies Merial Animal Health Limited, and Stabilitech.

It cannot be said with complete certainty how the virus escaped from the Pirbright site. However, the reports concluded that the most likely route was accidental release from the drainage system that connects the vaccine production plant to the waste inactivation facility on another part of the site. It is thought that localised flooding alongside construction work may have resulted in effluent escaping from the system coming to the surface, and being transferred on the site.

Whatever the route of escape, it should not have happened and we are determined that it does not happen again. I have accepted all of the recommendations in the reports from the HSE and Professor Spratt, and I have called for a review of the regulatory framework for animal pathogens led by Sir Bill Callaghan. In addition a safety alert has been issued jointly by DEFRA and the HSE to the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens and all animal pathogen category 3 and 4 laboratories, reminding licence holders of their responsibilities. This will be followed by a round of inspections. A rigorous improvement plan has been developed for both Merial, and IAH to be implemented before full operations with live virus can re-commence. In addition a review led by BBSRC is assessing the funding, governance and risk management at IAH. I will keep the House informed of progress with both these reviews.

Epidemiological investigations began immediately when disease was confirmed and indicated that it was highly unlikely that the virus had spread outside of the Surrey area. Under long standing international rules and European Union procedures, zone restrictions must stay in place for at least 30 days after preliminary cleansing and disinfection on the last infected premises and the completion of certain surveillance activity. We observed these procedures and carried out intensive surveillance going beyond Community rules in the area. Given that only two cases had been confirmed (on 3 and 6 August) we proceeded to lift the Surveillance Zone on the 8 September and with the unanimous support of the Commission and member states, trade restrictions were lifted.

Unfortunately, as we now know, there was undetected infection outside the surveillance zone. On 12 September following an investigation by Animal Health, Foot and Mouth Disease was confirmed in a third case in Surrey, and controls were re-imposed.

On 25 September we created two FMD areas in Great Britain, a risk area in the south-east and a lower risk area in the rest of the country where farm to farm movements were permitted under licence. We have subsequently reduced the size of the FMD risk area and will continue to do so based on veterinary risk. On 4 October markets in the low risk area were able to start operating again under stringent biosecurity measures. I visited Skipton market last Thursday and was able to see the difference this will make to the farming industry.

On 3 October the EU confirmed that the export of meat could resume from this Friday (12 October) from Scotland, Wales, and the north and south west of England. This is very welcome news for the farming and food chain industries. We will continue to work with the Commission to increase the areas from which exports can happen.

The outbreak and its continuation has been a tremendous blow to the farming industry, especially given the time of year when the majority of livestock farmers need to move their animals and generate income. The economic impact of this outbreak on the farming community has been very significant and we have listened to the views of industry to take steps to alleviate economic and welfare pressures where ever possible. Indeed, working in partnership with the farming community has been an integral part of our approach to responding to this outbreak.

I am acutely aware of the major challenges facing the livestock sector at this critical time of year. Officials are working very closely with the industry in facilitating the resumption of animal movements on a risk basis to ensure as far as possible the normal working of the industry. The measures we have taken to ease restrictions in the low risk area through farm to farm movements and opening markets have helped and the resumption of exports of meat will be of further assistance not just to those whose products are exported but to the market overall.

As if an outbreak of Foot and Mouth was not enough, on Saturday 22 September the first case of bluetongue was found in East Anglia. This disease affects mainly cattle and sheep and is the same strain which has affected much of North Europe since last summer. Intensive surveillance was carried out to determine whether this and the subsequent four cases were isolated incidents which could be controlled by culling.

On Friday 28 September the increase in cases indicated that the disease was circulating in our midge population and the Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer confirmed the presence on bluetongue in Great Britain.

Bluetongue is very different from FMD. It is spread by midges, rather than animal to animal, and we cannot stamp it out by slaughtering infected cases. However, we may be able to limit its spread. The cases we have seen so far are in a limited geographical area and seem to result from a single incursion which took place in August when FMD movement controls were in place.

Midge activity should diminish significantly next month, which may halt further spread—at least for the winter. We have therefore consulted a group of stakeholders from the sectors affected and they have agreed that for the time being we should apply the control and protection zone measures to clamp down on further spread.

A clear understanding of the spread of the disease is now crucial to help the industry, with the support of government, to plan what may happen and what the appropriate response would be. That requires farmers in the zones to be vigilant and, for the sake of their industry, to report all new cases, so that we can monitor whether spread is occurring.

Over the coming weeks, the decision on whether to continue this approach will be kept under review with stakeholders. If disease becomes more widespread, our control strategy sets out that we would consider, with the farming industry, extending the bluetongue zones to a larger area. This is a difficult balance between permitting movements across a greater distance but also potentially increasing the risk of further disease spread. I recognise the hardship these controls impose in East Anglia. Our aim is to help implement the control strategy that industry representatives themselves recommend to us. The effects of bluetongue movement controls mean that it is vital that disease control decisions are taken by the industry and not just Ministers. In the longer term, we are also urgently planning with the industry how we could implement a vaccination programme should a vaccine becomes available.

The speed, commitment and professionalism of all those who have responded to these outbreaks has been remarkable, and I am sure the House will join me in expressing thanks for their efforts. The House will also understand the very real pressures faced by the farming community and the distress that this has caused.

I will keep the House updated on progress regarding the control and eradication of both FMD and the control of bluetongue.