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Analysis: Hope and blame in Britain
On the morning of March 18 1996 John Major, then Prime Minister of the UK, was confronted suddenly with a political nightmare.
His deputy Michael Heseltine walked in with a joint memo from the Health and Agriculture Ministers confirming the advice of scientists that there was a link, long suspected, between BSE in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob brain disease (CJD) in humans.
Ministers were faced with the possibility of national panic, the possible destruction of the nation’s entire beef herd and the collapse of the agriculture industry.
Subsequent action has cost the country some £4 billion, deeply damaged the British agricultural industry and harmed Britain’s relations with its partners in the European Union, who within a week had banned the export of British beef worldwide.
The crisis helped to seal the fate of the Major administration in the ensuing General Election. It raised serious questions about the culture of secrecy and blame-passing within the Government machine, the structure of the civil service and about the regulation of food safety standards.
The inquiry into the BSE crisis by Lord Phillips does not tackle all those questions directly but it has ramifications for all of them.
Who is to blame?
With the number of deaths from CJD now approaching 90, the immediate questions in the public mind are: Who is to blame? Could the crisis have been prevented and was there a cover-up?
In brief, Lord Phillips’ answer to that is that over the 10 years it took to establish a definite scientific link between BSE and CJD, ministers paid too much attention to producers -- the farmers -- and not enough attention to the potential risks to consumers.
They did not lie, but in their preoccupation with not setting off a national panic they did not keep people sufficiently informed about potential risks. Their campaign of reassurance is branded a mistake.
Lord Phillips’ report declares that those looking for scapegoats or villains will be disappointed but it criticizes a “lack of rigour” in turning policy into practice, for example in the enforcement of a ban on specified bovine offal (brain, spinal cord etc). Ministers are criticized too for having no contingency plans for dealing with a CJD epidemic years after the possible risk was first uncovered.
Inevitably, the ministers most involved at the time the crisis came to light will carry most of the blame. Few will forget the image of John Gummer, Agriculture Minister from 1989 to 1993, feeding his daughter Cordelia a hamburger before the cameras in an effort to prove that British beef was safe.
That was in 1990, the year scientists had discovered that BSE had been transmitted across species to a cat.
In mitigation it has to be said that ministers were keen to minimize danger to the beef industry on which many jobs depended and that the scientific evidence was not conclusive for a long period.
Ministers are blamed for unnecessary panic as well as for failures to prevent risks to public health. But it does seem that an eagerness to restrain expenditure held back efforts to tackle the crisis. And Conservatives are vulnerable to the accusation that their eagerness to privatize saw an easing of standards on health and safety at a crucial time.
The political fallout
Although those held most culpable no longer serve on the Conservative Front Bench guilt by association will cause harm the party. William Hague, as Welsh Secretary under the Major administration, was called to give evidence to the Phillips inquiry and one member of his Shadow Cabinet, Angela Browning, was a junior agriculture minister at the time.
There has been dissension among the Conservative Ministers involved in the BSE crisis, with Douglas Hogg, Agriculture Minister at the time of the CJD disclosure, insisting that his warnings to the Cabinet were disregarded and other colleagues saying that he was “flapping.”
But it is the present Labour government which will face public judgment now over the level of care and compensation to be offered to the CJD victims and their families through the new national care fund.
There will be relief both in government circles and in a farming industry deeply depressed by the overall drop in farm incomes that the Phillips report does not call for new food safety measures.
With the countryside deeply unhappy, ministers will have been relieved not to have had to heap new regulatory burdens on farmers. The government has already moved to separate food safety from the Ministry of Agriculture , Fisheries and Food (MAFF) , sometimes criticized for being too close to producer interests, by setting up the Food Standards Agency.
The culture of secrecy
The Phillips Report is critical of bureaucratic delays. It talks of poor co-ordination between British government departments, saying that the Health Ministry was not told enough by MAFF about the increasing evidence of a health risk to humans.
It says too that ministers were over-reliant on evidence from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) and spent too much time consulting before acting on the advice they received. In consequence there is likely to be further pressure on the government to open up the processes of government and to make more freely available in future the kind of advice being received by ministers.
The Freedom of Information Bill currently before the UK parliament has been criticized as not going far enough in this regard. A Minister confirmed this week that the kind of information reaching ministers about the BSE crisis at the time would still not be available to the public or to independent scientists under the new Bill’s provisions.
The European dimension
The first announcements from the British Government about the BSE-CJD link in 1996 led the European Union to ban UK beef exports worldwide.
When the European Commission’s veterinary committee refused to lift the ban on British beef exports John Major believed this was down to political manipulation and announced a policy of non-co-operation with Europe. Britain announced a legal challenge to the ban and said it would block all EU business until there was a “framework” in place for lifting the export ban.
The row was eventually patched up, but it swelled the tide of Euroscepticism in the British Conservative Party and the export ban was not lifted until August 1999.
France is still not permitting the sale of British beef, despite a growth in BSE cases in French cattle, and is facing legal action by the EU.
The UK Government will hope that the findings of the Phillips Inquiry that no new food safety measures are required will be further reassurance to the world that British beef is now safe and that export markets will be built up again.
Fear and mystery of cross-species killer
The British BSE Inquiry
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