Attached is the full copy of a statement by Nick Brown, Minister of Agriculture, to the House of Commons today on the latest developments in the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak.

PARLIAMENTARY STATEMENT BY NICK BROWN

I want to update the House on the latest position with regard to the foot and mouth disease outbreak. I also want to set out how the Government is taking forward disease control measures given our increased knowledge about how the disease has spread.

As at 11am today there have been 237 confirmed cases in the UK. 205,000 animals have been condemned for destruction, of which more than three-quarters have already been slaughtered. This is out of a total UK cattle, sheep and pig population of more than 55 million.

Out of 160,000 livestock farms throughout the UK, 1,200 have been placed under restriction because of a confirmed or suspected case of the disease. We have been able to lift restrictions on over 660 of these farms, leaving less than 550 farms still restricted.

This is a devastating disease for farming and for rural communities affected. I want to express my deepest sympathy for those farmers who have lost their herds and flocks. And to the wider farming communities who are going through a time of terrible uncertainty and distress.

I was sorry to learn of a confirmed case in France earlier in the week. So far I understand that there have been no further cases on the continent. We have stayed in close contact with the European Commission and other European countries' veterinary authorities. They have strongly supported the firm action taken in the UK to control the disease and prevent its spread.

From the outset the Government has put firm disease control measures rapidly in place. Every action has been taken on the advice of Chief Veterinary Officer.

Each day we have learned more about the outbreak. Epidemiological investigations - and the incubation of disease in livestock - have revealed the mechanisms by which the disease has spread. As our understanding has increased, I have shared new information with the House and through daily media briefings.

The disease has spread mainly through movement of sheep and subsequent mixing of animals at a small number of livestock markets. It is important to stress that vast majority of disease spread around the country took place before 20 February when the first outbreak was discovered in Essex.

With increased knowledge about how the disease has spread, the Government has been able to refine disease control measures. In the infected areas the Government has intensified controls. Where possible, we have allowed movement, for example, to allow licensed movements to slaughter and short movements for welfare reasons.

The Government is working to five key disease control aims:

  • First, to keep free of disease those areas of the country still free;
  • Second, to halt the deterioration of the disease situation in Devon;
  • Third, to stop the spread of the disease in the North of England and South West Scotland. We are increasingly seeing localised spread from sheep flock to sheep flock in Scotland and from cattle to cattle in Cumbria;
  • Fourth, to minimise the spread of the disease from Longtown, Welshpool and Northampton markets, where it has been identified that infection has been present;
  • And fifth, to eliminate infection in flocks that have passed through dealers known to have handled infected flocks.

Of course, we will keep this strategy under constant review.

Taking each of these issues in turn, I will set out the action the Government is taking.

In areas that are currently disease free, we will be establishing a new type of controlled area within which we hope eventually to allow a more normal level of activity both in agriculture and the rural community. But in the short term the priority will be to avoid the risk of importing the disease into these clean areas by movements of animals from areas where there is infection. In addition we will be identifying any high-risk movements of sheep which took place before 23 February. These sheep will be destroyed to ensure that any possibility of infection is removed.

In Devon the disease has been spreading from farm to farm due to the nature of agriculture with lots of small farms, dense animal populations, movements of people and equipment. The strategy here will be to have intensive patrols to all farms within 3km of the infected farm. Each farm will be visited and inspected by veterinary or trained lay staff to ensure that cases of foot and mouth disease are identified as soon as possible to prevent onward spread.

Third, the large focus on infection in the north of England and southern Scotland has been mostly concentrated in the sheep flock although there is now cattle to cattle spread in Cumbria. There are a considerable number of cases in this area with the potential for rapid spread to adjacent farms and even further afield. In this case we must still ensure that infected animals are removed as quickly as possible and in order to do this it will be necessary to destroy animals within the 3km zones on a precautionary basis.

Fourth, there is clear evidence that sheep from the markets in the Welshpool, Northampton and Longtown were exposed to disease and there is reason to suspect that, with the passage of time, numbers of flocks into which these sheep were imported may be infected. These flocks will be removed as dangerous contacts.

Fifth, the same approach will be taken to sheep handled during the high-risk period by 2 major dealers who have been associated with movements of infected sheep.

Mr Speaker, this is a policy of safety first. We are intensifying the slaughter of animals at risk in the areas of the country - thankfully still limited - where the disease has spread. And then, provided that the other areas remain disease-free, we can, over the next week to 10 days, consider modifying restrictions in the areas that have remained clean.

We are deeply conscious of the animal welfare problems that have been posed by the movement restrictions that we have had to put in place for disease control reasons. We made arrangements last week for a number of local licensed movements, which will I hope have alleviated a proportion of these problems. We were not however then able to provide for longer distance movements of animals caught in the wrong place, for example Welsh sheep "on tack" on dairy farms in England. I shall be publishing later today the principles of a scheme for moving such animals, necessarily under very tight restrictions. The general principle will be that animals can be moved within a presently controlled area, or within the currently disease free areas, and into an area of higher disease risk, but not the other way. It is my intention that farmers will be able to apply for licences for such movement over the weekend.

These arrangements will not of course be able to deal with all the welfare problems which animals are facing. Some animals will be unable to move because of their condition; others will be unable to move because they are in infected areas. Where animal's welfare problems cannot be alleviated by local action, we shall be putting in place arrangements for their disposal at public expense. Payments will be made for such animals, broadly on the lines of those adopted by the Government in East Anglia last autumn for the Pig Welfare Disposal Scheme.

I should emphasise that this is a voluntary scheme. It will be for individual farmers to decide whether to offer livestock to the scheme; acceptances will depend upon certification by a vet that a welfare problem exists or is about to emerge.

The license to slaughter scheme introduced on 2 March has allowed the meat trade to begin operating again, although on a necessarily limited basis. The latest estimate of the Meat and Livestock Commission is that the pig sector is back to 78% of normal production, beef is at 68% and lamb is at 30 % of normal production. Veterinary advice does not recommend the setting up a system of collection centres, although the option is being kept under review.

Mr Speaker, the control of foot and mouth disease is a major logistical exercise. In this task we are drawing on the expertise of many public sector organisations, particularly those with field organisations or specialist knowledge and expertise including the Ministry of Defence, the Environment Agency, the Meat and Livestock Commission and MAFF's agencies. The Ministry of Defence is deploying a logistic planning team, drawn from Land Command to provide advice on the planning and management of MAFF and civil resources. We have also been offered support from a wider range of private organisations. In addition there has been international support, particularly in the provision of veterinary staff to help with the disease control programme. I am enormously grateful for all of this support.

Disease control measures have had a major impact on non-farm businesses in rural areas, and in particular the tourist industry. Yesterday my Rt Hon Friend the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport explained to the House what the Government is doing to help these sectors.

A new taskforce has met to take this work forward. My Rt Hon Friend the Minister for the Environment will make further announcements next week. MAFF will continue to provide targeted advice and guidance from the Chief Veterinary Officer on the risks associated with a range of activities in the countryside.

Movement control measures in place are keeping the spread of the disease to an absolute minimum. Slaughtering out of infected farms and dangerous contacts is bearing down on the disease where it exists. An intensified slaughter policy in respect of animals thought to be at risk of developing the disease adds to this effort. As further cases emerge we will learn more about the way the outbreak has developed, and this will inform any further refinements of the control policy as necessary. I will continue to keep the House informed. Foot and mouth disease is a personal tragedy for those affected, and a body blow to the livestock industry as a whole. I express the Government's deepest sympathy for those affected; I also want to express my support and appreciation of the State Veterinary Service, the farming organisations and all those others who are involved in combating the disease and dealing with its consequences. I continue to appeal to the public for their co-operation. Contact with livestock is the key to the spread of the disease. It is important to remember that the key risk is contact with susceptible livestock. The precautionary measures should be focussed on bearing down on that risk. There is no need to bring all aspects of rural activity to a standstill. So while the disease is still with us I renew my appeal to the public to avoid unnecessary visits to livestock farms, and where visits are unavoidable, to take the precautions advised.

I am grateful for the support of House for the Government's actions. It is important that we set aside party politics in dealing with this outbreak. If the whole country works together and works constructively then we will get through this.

just-food.com published a feature on foot and mouth. To read it, click here.