Foot and Mouth (Vaccinations)

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5 April 2001.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 12:00, 5 April 2001

If he will review his policy on vaccinations of livestock against foot and mouth disease. [155683]

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Vaccination has always been an option that we have kept under constant review. The European Union Standing Veterinary Committee agreed that emergency vaccination of cattle in Cumbria and Devon could be carried out if the Government concluded that it was necessary as an additional disease-control measure.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The disappointing thing about yesterday's seminar was its failure to provide us with a rational cost-benefit analysis of the present policies compared with the alternatives of partial or full vaccination. We know that the costs are immense—possibly £9 billion—to protect an industry that will be worth nothing for the next three years, but was worth about a third of a billion pounds at best. The cost in human and animal suffering is enormous. When the outbreak is over, in a year or two, foot and mouth is likely to return spontaneously, by accident or, most likely, by the deliberate act of a person or organisation. Will the Minister assure me that the Government will then take fully into account what happened in Albania, Macedonia, Algeria and Taiwan, where vaccination was used extensively? We should look to MAFF to represent all rural industries, and not just—

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I can assure my hon. Friend that we have considered the experience of countries that have used vaccination extensively, and there were problems in every case. Vaccination is an option, and we have contingency plans, as is right and proper. Sometimes it is right also to challenge conventional thinking about the way to deal with issues, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we are not afraid to do so.

Vaccines are not a panacea and there are problems with them. There is resistance to the idea within farming, and there is no consensus of approach on their use, which would be important if they were to be used. There are also problems with trade, identification and potential consumer resistance. Nevertheless, we need to consider these matters carefully and keep them under review.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that ring vaccination around the worst-affected areas would have a dramatic advantage over the present policy at this time? Has he seen the excellent work done by the Elm Farm research centre, the admirable letter in The Times this morning from Fiona Reynolds, the director-general of the National Trust, or the work of Toby and Emma Tennant in the borders, all of whom urge that that step be taken? Of course it is a bold step, but this is a moment for bold action.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Yes, I have seen the views of Fiona Reynolds and others, and I take them very seriously. The use of ring vaccination has been considered, including as a method of damping down the disease. At present, the view is that it would not give us the same benefits as the present policy of 24–48 hours. As the House has heard, there are indications that the policy is beginning to bite into the outbreak, anti we must take that into account. We are keeping our options open and we are trying to evaluate the best way of using vaccines and non-vaccine approaches.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

Has there been any consideration of the use of vaccination in urban farms and zoos? My hon. Friend will appreciate that they are in special circumstances, and they are experiencing great difficulties at this time.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

My hon. Friend is right to say that there are special circumstances in zoos with exotic animals and rare breeds. The EU Standing Veterinary Committee discussed the matter yesterday. Its report was submitted to the Ministry today and we will consider its recommendations to see whether there is a role for vaccination in those circumstances.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

Does the Minister accept that the constant public musings about whether or not to vaccinate, which were started by the Prime Minister and have continued this morning, merely add confusion, and that the job of Government is to make up their mind? While they are not doing so, it is inevitable that people will increasingly ask that vaccination be used. If it is not to be used, the Minister simply has to make a proper calculation of the costs of the present policy of eradication by slaughter and stack that against the value of the trade that we are trying to save and the costs of the public's refusal to buy products that might flow from vaccination. Unless all those facts are in the public domain instead of general musings, the Minister will not settle the controversy and he will not win the argument.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman's uncharacteristic suggestion that we should rule something out and that we should not have a debate on whether there is a role for vaccination. I stress that vaccination is not a panacea: there are severe downsides to its use. It is not the majority view in the veterinary or scientific world, although there is, of course, a minority view to the contrary. It is right and proper that we hold the option open, but it is most important that we control and eradicate the disease. The current policy appears to be bearing down on it, so it has to be the priority; vaccination is currently of secondary importance.