For the purposes of this article, Foot-and-Mouth Disease will be abbreviated to FMD or, on occasion, referred to by its biological name "Picornaviridae."
A year ago this month saw the official launch of Britain's worst agricultural disaster in living memory. Within days, conflicting information on the nature of this supposed horror virus, with attendant conspiracy theories, began to circulate.
In many clubs, pubs and other gathering places, lurid stories of biological warfare being waged by environmental extremists in league with Middle-Eastern / Gulf terrorists (mainly from Iraq) were rife. The media seemed incapable of reaching any consensus about the aetiology, manifestation and consequences of picornaviridae other than a broad yet scientifically tenuous assertion that the virus was nothing less than a harbinger of doom for the U.K's rural economy and modus operandi.
Then, in early April 2001, whilst millions of farm animals were being exterminated on the pretext of eradicating FMD, two stories emerged which pointed at possible official foreknowledge of the epidemic.
The first involved a missing FMD Culture test-tube from Porton Down. This was reported in the Sunday Express on 8th April 2001. The article concludes thus: "... an Agriculture Ministry spokesman said the matter was being investigated."
The second involved preparations for deadstock disposal which were undertaken during the period from October 2000 until shortly before public announcement of the FMD outbreak on 19th February 2001. (Please refer to extract from Hansard, 23rd April 2001 - Written Answers. This can be found in my article: The Foot-and-Mouth Epidemic of 2001 - Further background on the Jonathan Proctor Interview with Sir Rupert Mainwaring).
I will deal with each in turn.
The account of a missing FMD phial (Sunday Express, 8th April 2001) was not the only mention of possible biological skulduggery. A former government scientist asserted that FMD had proliferated due to research work on a vaccine (Western Daily Press, 8th April 2001). In my previous article "Further background on the Jonathan Proctor Interview with Sir Rupert Mainwaring," I made reference to a scientist who claimed that the virus could only have come from a U.K. laboratory.
So, during April and May, the notion of either environmental terrorists or rogue ministry officials being responsible for the "epidemic" became a new conversation topic, especially in those areas affected by FMD. I must admit to having been strongly influenced by the Porton Down report but now, there are doubts which cast a different perspective on this story.
I find it incredible that such an article appeared in the first place, given the seriousness of its content. Even more remarkable was any lack of denial from the MAFF spokesman and that an investigation was taking place.
At the time, I expected a furore in the House of Commons but such anticipations were unfulfilled. And yet, still no denials!
There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that if the FMD virus really IS a livestock super-plague, the specimen at Porton Down would have been kept under the same security levels which exist at, for example, a nuclear ordnance silo. Any loss of such an item would have resulted in a massive clandestine recovery operation with full reporting restrictions under Official Secrets Act procedures enforced.
As soon as it became clear that the FMD phial could not be accounted for, a State of Emergency would have been declared immediately. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for MAFF would have jointly addressed the nation to explain the situation's gravity and protective measures to be implemented.
These assumptions are based on the premise that FMD is comparable with Ebola or Tuberculosis - which is NOT the case. The unfolding saga surrounding Porton Down portrayed either gross incompetence and complacency, given the supposed catastrophe waiting to be unleashed from this missing test-tube OR a subtle ploy to reinforce existing fears about FMD.
During early Spring 2001, suspicions were being voiced doubting the official view that FMD was so terrible and therefore no alternative existed other than mass slaughter. Then, on Sunday 8th April, the Express article conveniently appeared.
Conspiracy or Cock-up! Fact or Fallacy? Desparate Situation or Damp Squib? The hint of security breaches at Porton Down gave credence to the notion that Picornaviridae was - and still is - a highly dangerous organism at the very time when this orthodoxy was being challenged!
Small wonder that no "D" Notices were invoked. If they had been, my current discourse would not be taking place.
I suspect the Sunday Express' journalist was duped into believing that she had revealed information pointing to the possibility of FMD's presence in the U.K. prior to February 2001, this being linked to a missing specimen from Porton Down.
If her account is correct, its revelation would have been to the government's benefit for the following reasons:
On all three points, the government's strategy was successful.
I was amongst those hoodwinked into believing that the Sunday Express - and other newspapers - had exposed a scandal of either criminal recklessness or staggering imbecility. Actually, the veracity of Porton Down's missing artefact is, in my view, a "red herring." Irrespective of the outbreak's source, government objectives to rationalise British farming are now well on track due, in part, to their wilful failure in accepting new evidence downgrading the severity of FMD.
I will outline possible origins of last year's FMD:
Permutations from re-arranging the sequence of letters a, b, c and d above probably equal the amount of conspiracy theories currently in circulation.
Malice aforethought or panic stations? The already beleaguered machinations of Westminster/Whitehall struggling to cope with an approaching catastrophe? I retain an open mind about alleged events prior to 19th February 2001. It would have been irresponsible for any government to have no tried and tested contingency plans for dealing with such a crisis. My concern lay in the absence of any command structure to direct operations with maximum efficiency - a deficit which was to be amply demonstrated!
Gross ineptitude by accident or design? Lurking in the background yet ever omnipresent, Millbank's puppet-masters, intoxicated with their nightmare vision of a green and pleasant land (U.K. Theme Parks Plc), goaded the hapless apparatchics into action with their three mantras: Modernise! Reform! Restructure!
And the hordes from MAFF / DETR emerged from their lairs chanting "Modernise! Reform! Restructure!" With discordant unanimity, they set to the task of preparing for FMD - that great pestilence.
Looking on, the bio-tech multi-national corporations were drooling with glee at the prospects of land acquisition, currently inhabited with livestock, later to be ear-marked for extermination. If their aspirations were fulfilled, they would soon be laughing all the way to the bank...
The number of road hauliers, landscape engineers, industrial disinfectant manufacturers, protective clothing suppliers and timber merchants given government contracts is so large that to list them all would be tedious.
I am not alone in sparing the reader such details. To quote from a written answer provided by the Minister of State, MAFF:
"Information on all the timber merchants contacted by the Ministry over the last year is not held centrally and could be provided only at a disproportionate cost." (Hansard, 23rd April 2001).
For "disproportionate cost," substitute "public enquiry."
So, by early February 2001, a vast array of personnel and equipment had been assembled. Legions of workers either directly employed, on secondment to sub-contracted by MAFF / DETR were waiting for the word to mobilise - to engage in battle against the invisible, calamitous hordes of Picornaviridae.
Yet, the key players who could determine the operation's success were conspicuously absent. The one organisation with the expertise and experience in delivering a command performance was - at least, on the ground - nowhere to be seen.
Mobilisation of the reserve armed forces, to be deployed at full battalion strength immediately an infection zone was identified, did not feature in the preparations.
The resulting shambles transformed the "Grand Old Duke of York" into a paragon of competence and leadership. By the time Army units WERE dispatched, it was "too little, too late."
I can think of no other civil emergency operation in British history where officialdom's "Medusa touch" has been so successful. New Labour and their cohorts are to be congratulated for ensuring everything that could possibly go wrong actually did so with such spectacular displays of fire, blood and mud. I am not surprised that they are resisting calls for a full public enquiry: it would dye their Emperor's New Clothes the wrong colour, thereby rendering them visible!
The government chose to ignore conclusions from recent research showing that FMD was not livestock's great enemy. Ministers and their aides, well aware of the minimal risks posed by this virus, took the shibboleth of anathematizing it, thus giving them a perfect excuse to rationalise the farming industry.
By appearing to be incompetent in dealing with this so-called "epidemic," rural Britain has been forced into accepting New Labour's bureaucratic, empty-headed reform agenda. The next five years will determine how effective their strategy has been.
I have recently been informed that GM crop trials, on a large scale, will be undertaken in England and Scotland, It will be interesting to find out whether the sites were former grazing lands of animals culled last year.
At the risk of being accused of paranoia, I have to be aware of another Security Service visit. Their tactics include planting illegal materials in the target's home, with copies of his/her fingerprints on these objects. Then, the police are anonymously informed.
I am also mindful of what happened to Somerset farmer, Mr Mark Purdey during the last decade. His crime: challenging the government over causes of BSE.
Mark Brook, Weymouth, Dorset: 2nd February 2002.