Lessons Learned: Reviewing UK Foot and Mouth Response

UK - The British Authorities have improved their contigency planning, but the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Surrey last year should never have happened.
calendar icon 12 March 2008
clock icon 4 minute read

This was the major finding in a report on the incident.

Following the summer outbreak of 2007, when a government viral laboratory accidentally leaked Foot and Mouth disease into the Surrey countryside, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, requested a review of the government's practise to contain the outbreak. Dr Iain Anderson, released the review this week.

Dr Anderson, the chairman of the Review, summed up the response by saying it was an improvement on the the 2001 outbreak, but there were still lessons to be learned.

“In examining the 2007 outbreak, we found much to applaud, along with some deficiencies. On balance, the positive easily outweighs the negative.”

For example:

  1. The benefits of improved contingency planning over the past five years within both Defra and the Animal Health agency
  2. The role that science (including in respect of the decision not to vaccinate) played during the outbreak
  3. More effective communications both externally to the wider media and to farmers and stakeholders affected

But on the other hand:

  1. The virus should never have escaped from Pirbright. The regulatory system was poor, given the level of risk managed at that facility – a fact already identified by the three previous reports into the outbreak
  2. Data and Information systems were weak and little progress had been made on recommendations from 2001
  3. The response was not scaleable had there been multiple outbreaks

Dr Anderson makes one major personal recommendation based on his assessment of all the evidence and analysis in respect of Pirbright. He said:

“In the light of the growing threats from globalisation and climate change, the risks posed by exotic animal disease in the UK are increasing and are set to increase still further.”

The Institute for Animal Health (IAH) – a world leader in the field of exotic animal diseases – needs to be repositioned as a new National Institute of Infectious Diseases, supported by multiple funding sources from government and elsewhere. The Institute should ideally forge formal links with one or more universities.”

Commenting on the launch of his report, Dr Anderson said:

“The FMD outbreak in 2007 was avoidable. If there's one new lesson to be learned it is this: the creeping degradation of standards that led to the outbreak must never be allowed again. The structural and management inadequacies at and around Pirbright must be addressed urgently and comprehensively.

"If there's one new lesson to be learned it is this: the creeping degradation of standards that led to the outbreak must never be allowed again."
Dr Anderson

“To that end today, and in my report, I am calling on Defra and the Government to establish a National Institute of Infectious Diseases, drawing on the deep well of scientific knowledge and expertise across the animal health disciplines in the UK and the world. This will require some work, but I am convinced that Defra can make a success of this, knowing that the nation's eyes are upon them.”

The Review examined the nine major lessons from the 2002 Report. Overall the Review found the Government's response to the outbreak was effective. However, one lesson not learned was the use of data and information management systems, a crucial aspect of an effective response strategy and one that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Going forward, the report makes a number of recommendations for further action to build on the progress made since 2001.

Dr Anderson also proposes that steps should be taken to create an Independent Advisory Committee on Animal and Emerging Infectious Diseases. It would take a strategic overview of all aspects of animal health, transcending artificial boundaries defined by government departments.

Dr Anderson urges that the ambiguities and wrangling over departmental leadership that have bedevilled progress in this area need to be tackled and not left in doubt any longer. He says:

“I believe Defra will properly support well argued, peer reviewed research programme if it is confident that value will be delivered and budget pressures allow.”

He adds though:

“If however, these issues cannot be resolved at departmental level, or if Defra is constrained by lack of funding, then I urge the Prime Minister to ensure that appropriate new arrangements are brought into being as soon as practicable.”

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