Former Agriculture Minister Nick Brown defends foot-and-mouth response

Tyneside MP Nick Brown has defended his approach as Agriculture Minister during the foot-and-mouth epidemic, 20 years since the start of the crisis.

The disease was first reported on 19 February 2001 at an abattoir in Essex. More than six million animals around the UK were slaughtered over the following seven months.

The Labour MP for Newcastle East, added: "There was an enormous call during the outbreak for an alternative approach based on vaccination.

"My own reflection is they hadn't thought carefully enough about the difficulties of vaccinating some 17 million sheep in the middle of the lambing season."

The source of the outbreak was discovered to be a pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland, where it's thought the animals had eaten infected waste from overseas.

An independent inquiry led by Dr Iain Anderson later reported: "The first responses to the early cases were not fast enough or effectively coordinated.

"The paramount importance of speed, and especially the rapid slaughter of infected animals, was not given overriding priority early on."

Mr Brown says he doesn't accept that criticism.

"The disease had got a headstart on us, and so the ministry's first task, with all the resources we had at our disposal, was to get after the disease, as soon as we could identify where it was.

"My view is that we did respond in a timely way and as the fight against the disease escalated, we sent for extra resources and, to be fair to the government, we got them."

Tony Blair and Nick Brown after having talks on the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. Credit: PA Images

He was demoted by Tony Blair in a cabinet reshuffle after the general election in June 2001.

Mr Brown said: "There were two politicians involved, I was one of them and the other was the prime minister. If one of us was going to lose our job afterwards, it's a reasonable guess which one it's going to be. That's politics."

Asked about comparisons with the coronavirus pandemic, he said: "My approach was to listen to the advice of the chief vet, who I thought did a first-rate job for the department and the country.

"In the same way, the government now are very wise to listen to the advice of the chief medical officer. There are scientific questions involved and you should rely on and respect those who are able to give you specialist professional advice."