UK farmers, exporters and those in the tourism sector breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as the foot and mouth outbreak was officially declared to be at an end. It was certainly good news, but newspapers and industry observers were quick to urge caution to prevent a further outbreak ever escalating to such devastating impact.

The leader in today’s (Wednesday’s) Guardian newspaper called for what it terms a “proper enquiry” into the outbreak, saying that Britain is “scarcely any better prepared to deal with an outbreak today than it was a year ago”. Britain was not on its guard against the disease and as a result moved slowly to combat it. Whitehall had no understanding of the nature or scale of the nationwide and international system of animal movement which now underpins the just-in-time distribution networks supplying the major multiples.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the paper argues, needs at the very least to set up a permanent early warning system to enable a rapid response to any future outbreaks. For it could happen again; we could simply be enjoying a lull.

Beyond the structural response to an outbreak, the paper questions whether the strategy of mass cull was appropriate. Was it driven by a need to protect other animals and the food chain, or the desire to protect lamb exporters? After all, neither foot and mouth disease nor vaccination makes lamb meat unfit for human consumption. A combined vaccination/slaughter policy would have been cheaper in terms of compensation payments and arguably less demoralising for farmers and the general public.

Now that the epidemic that dogged the UK agriculture sector throughout 2001 is over, it is imperative that a full-scale independent public inquiry be carried out – and its lessons implemented.