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Agriculture: Bluetongue

Volume 700: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

On what basis they have relaxed the movement restrictions for bluetongue.

My Lords, on 20 December, in accordance with EU law, Defra declared that the UK bluetongue restricted zone was in a vector-free period. Falling temperatures and a declining midge count provided evidence that the risk of disease transmission was low. Based on an assessment of historic meteorological data and historic trapping, the vector-free period ended on 15 March. We have now returned to the pattern of movement restrictions in place between September and December last year.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In the light of the recent discovery of viremic calves and the possibility of maternal transmission of bluetongue, does he agree that it is vital that we understand the overwintering process for bluetongue? What funding has been made available to the Institute for Animal Health to research this issue? Further, does the noble Lord agree that it would give farmers a lot more confidence in Defra if the officials who compiled the leaflet Bluetongue: How to spot the disease knew the difference between sheep and cattle and that you do not vaccinate a recumbent cow?

My Lords, what happened with the exports from the Netherlands to Northern Ireland in January is worrying. I cannot give a figure for the money, but research is going on to see whether there is a possibility of oral transfer mechanisms or transfers from cows to calves of bluetongue because that has not been thought to be the issue to date. Work is going on across Europe on the issue. The EU Commission has looked at it, but the evidence base is incomplete, so further work is being undertaken.

On the second point, perhaps I may say how grateful I am to the noble Countess for drawing my attention to this lapse in technical efficiency as soon as she discovered it rather than waiting to cause me acute embarrassment at the Dispatch Box. As she will realise, the website was changed by around noon today so that it now shows the clinical signs in cattle accompanied by photographs of cattle and the clinical signs in sheep accompanied by photographs of sheep. The one thing I would say in defence is that there was a separate area on the website of the clinical signs of bluetongue accompanied by photographs, all of which were accurate. However, the leaflet was not. This is a lapse that I regret.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the clear information that is available on the website which states that the vector-free period ended on 15 March. However, is he satisfied that those without access to the website are being given the information about the movement of animals after that date?

Yes, my Lords, We expect all animal keepers to take responsibility for keeping themselves up to date with what is going on. Not everyone has access to the website, but sufficient information has been published. We gave virtually a month’s notice of the end of the vector-free period, which finished on 15 March, and we issued the notification on 22 February making it abundantly clear. We had good scientific evidence for doing that, and support from the industry. More than enough notice was given because the information was put out not just on the website, but in the farming periodicals and technical press. We expect responsible livestock keepers to ensure that they keep themselves up to date.

My Lords, while admiring Defra’s objective to contain the disease, there comes a time when the emphasis must change to allow trade to take place and businesses to be able to carry on, even under the cloud of the disease. Does the Minister have in mind the point at which this change might come?

Not at the moment, my Lords. We are close to it. We have had 108 cases of establishments with bluetongue. Some 42 were discovered during the checks over the winter; there have been 80,000 pre-movement checks. At that rate, the figure of 108 is still quite small. The general assessment is that we will be ready to start vaccinating as soon as the vaccine arrives, in April or May. We were the first country in the European Union to order supplies. Vaccination will be done on a voluntary basis, as I have explained, but will have the cheapest distribution costs of anywhere in Europe. There will come a time, as my noble friend says, when the assessment may be that to continue trading, we have to declare the whole of GB a protection zone. We are not at that state yet but we will not be far from it if there are major outbreaks of bluetongue in the spring.

My Lords, to follow up on that response, the Government have stated their intention to set up a rolling vaccination programme by extending the current zones once the animals within the zones have been vaccinated. Has this strategy already received European blessing or is it a way round the EU regulation to declare the whole of England a single zone?

My Lords, it is not a way round the EU regulation. Everything we have done has been agreed with the European Union. Our vaccination programme has been agreed with it, contrary to last week’s misleading and unprofessional press release from the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, which has been rebutted strongly by the Chief Veterinary Officer. There will be a case for allowing animal movements in order to continue trade. The fact that we found only 42 cases in 80,000 checks over the winter shows that the zones are in roughly the right place. We have confidence in that. There will come a time, and it may not be far away, when the zones will be extended—they are quite large now—and that to protect trade it will be easier to cover the whole country. We will do that in conjunction with our European partners. They have agreed with everything we have done so far and agree with our vaccination plans as well.

My Lords, can the Minister predict how much bluetongue is expected throughout the UK this coming summer?

My Lords, I do not know. We have midge traps around the country. We know how many midges we trapped from November to December, what happened with the temperatures and all the other factors. Because of the date now, the temperature change and the possibility of the virus living over the winter, we will know within about a month whether we will have some serious problems. I cannot possibly predict the scale of it.

My Lords, could my noble friend help a non-farmer like me? Is it safe to eat meat from a cow that has bluetongue? If it is, what are we worrying about? We can let the whole lot have bluetongue and save a lot of government money.

My Lords, is it right that the livestock sector should bear all the financial risks of the closure of markets by the Government when there is an outbreak of any of these exotic diseases?

My Lords, we are talking about bluetongue, not foot and mouth. Simply because of the transmission rate the markets were not affected—or only to the extent of moving animals from one zone to another. They could move from the protection zone to slaughter but could not be moved if they were going to live. There was some interference in trade but no closure of markets. It is true that everywhere these zones are drawn on the map the abattoirs and the markets are the wrong side of the line, but there were no actual closures. Animals could continue to move from a protection zone to slaughter.