2001 UK foot and mouth crisis

From Academic Kids

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom in the spring and summer of 2001 caused a crisis in British agriculture and tourism. The epidemic saw 2,000 cases of the disease in farms in Essex, Tyne and Wear, Devon, Cornwall, Gwynedd, Cumbria and southern Scotland. Around seven million sheep and cattle were culled in an eventually successful attempt to halt the disease. Cumbria was the worst affected area of the country with 843 cases. This damaged the popularity of the Lake District as a tourist destination. By the time the disease was halted by October 2001, the crisis was estimated to have cost Britain 8bn ($15bn).



The first case of the disease to be detected was at Cheale Meats abbatoir in Little Warley, Essex on February 19, 2001. Over the next four days several more cases were announced in Essex. On February 23 a case was confirmed in Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, from where the pig in the first case had come; this farm was later confirmed as the source of the outbreak and the owner convicted of failing to inform the authorities of a notifiable disease. On February 24 a case was announced in Highampton in Devon. Later in the week north Wales was affected. By the beginning of March, the disease had spread to Cornwall, southern Scotland and the Lake District where it took a particularly strong hold.

By the end of March the disease was at its height - up to 50 new cases a day. The effort to prevent the spread of the disease, which caused a complete ban of the sale of British pigs, sheep and cattle until the disease was confirmed eradicated, concentrated on a cull by burning all animals within a close distance to an infected farm. The complete halt on movement of livestock, cull and extensive measures to prevent humans carrying the disease on their boots and clothing from one site to another brought the disease under control during the summer. From May to September about 5 cases per day were reported. The final case was reported on Whygill Head Farm near Appleby in Cumbria on September 30. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) downgraded to "high risk" the last area to be denoted "infected" on November 29. Restrictions on lifestock movement were retained into 2002.

The use of a vaccine to halt the spread of the disease was repeatedly considered during the outbreak, but the government never decided to use it after pressure from the National Farmers Union. Although the vaccine was believed to be effective, export rules would prevent the export of British livestock in the future, and it was decided that this was too great a price to pay. Following the outbreak, the law was changed to allow vaccinations rather than just culling.

Spread to continental Europe

By the middle of spring 2001, several cases of foot and mouth were reported in Ireland and mainland Europe, following unknowing transportation of infected animals from the UK. The cases sparked fears of a continent-wide pandemic, but these proved unfounded.

The Netherlands was the worst affected country outside the UK - suffering 25 cases. Vaccinations were used to halt the spread of the disease.

The Republic of Ireland suffered one case in a flock of sheep in Jenkinstown in County Louth in March 2000. A cull of healthy livestock around the farm was ordered. Irish special forces sniped wild animals capable of bearing the disease, such as deer, in the area.

France suffered two cases, on 13th and 23rd of March.

Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg and Germany carried out some precautionary slaughters, but all tests eventually proved negative. Further false alarms that did not result in any culling were signalled in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Italy. All other European countries imposed livestock movement restrictions from infected or potentially infected countries.


The outbreak caused the delay by a month the elections for local elections. Part of the reason was that bringing together so many farmers at polling stations would be an ideal way to spread the disease. However more importantly it was widely known before the outbreak that the Government had chosen the day of the local elections to hold the General Election. Holding a General Election during the height of the crisis was widely seen as impossible - Government work is much reduced during the four week campaign and it was seen as inappropriate to divert attention away from management of the crisis. The announcement was leaked to newspapers at the end of March. Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed the decision on April 2. Opposition leader William Hague concurred with the reasons for delay, and even suggested a further delay to ensure the crisis was truly over (though it was alleged that he was hoping the Tories would be more popular and do better at the coming election the later it took place, perhaps because of bad government handling of the foot and mouth situation). The general election was eventually held on June 7, along with the local elections. It was the first delay of an election since the Second World War.

Following the election, Blair announced a re-organisation of the government departments. Largely in response to the perceived failure of the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to respond to the outbreak quickly and effectively enough, the ministry was merged with elements of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to form the current department, DEFRA.


As the 2001 outbreak seemed to cause as much harm as the previous outbreak in 1967, there was a widespread government and public perception that little had been learnt from the previous epidemic (despite the publication in 1968 of a report - the Northumberland Inquiry - on the previous outbreak). In August 2001 therefore, in an effort to prevent this failure to learn from history from happening again, the UK Government launched three inquiries into various aspects of the crisis. They were:

Inquiry into the lessons to be learned from the foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001. This independent inquiry was devoted specifically to the government's handling of the crisis. It was chaired by Sir Iain Anderson and reported in July 2002.
The Royal Society Inquiry into Infectious Diseases in Livestock. This inquiry examined the scientific aspects of the crisis, for instance the effiacy of vaccinations, the way the virus spreads and so on. It was chaired by Sir Brian Follett and also reported in July 2002.
Policy Commission On The Future Of Farming And Food. This inquiry focused on the long-term production and delivery of food within the country. It was chaired by Sir Donald Curry and reported in January 2002.

All three inquiries reported their findings to the public. However the inquiries themselves took place in private. The lack of a full public inquiry into the crisis caused a group of farmers, business leaders and media organisations to lodge an appeal at the High Court against the government's decision not to hold such an inquiry. Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, had ruled out a public inquiry on the grounds that it would be too costly and take too long. After a four-day hearing, the court sided with Beckett and the Government.

Later reaction

In the light of the reports' extensive recommendations, in June 2004, DEFRA held a simulation exercise in five areas around the country to test new procedures to be employed in the event of a future outbreak.

References and external links


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