Thursday, December 13, 2007

" Defra have no policy...

... and have spent £1 billion to no good effect in the last decade".

So said Lord Rooker, 1 hour and nine minutes into a slippery session with the EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) committee on December 10th. This was a long and tortuous attempt to drag from a minister, who although fashionably 'recycled', has been in the Defra seat for a decade, just what government policy on bTb would be.

But Lord Rooker was not forthcoming. The chairman remarked that he was not getting any degree of clarity, and that after ten years in the job, Lord Rooker was coming over as "don't have a clue".

But some of what he did say was unequivocal and we will summarise.

* That he wouldn't argue with the projection of a £300,000,000 annual cost of bTb in 2012 / 2013, predicted in the Defra strategy document of 2004.

* At £100,000,000 the cost of bTb annually was consuming 40 per cent of Defra's Animal Health budget - that rose to 70 - 80 percent in some areas.

* Much of the cost was on antiquated trace and paper based systems. "The vets and AHOs never get mentioned, but they operate a cumbersome paper trail". The computer screens are black and white.

* Defra has to formulate a comprehensive strategy. "The issue is bTb. We have a reservoir in the wildlife and disease in a food producing animal. And it is growing".

* "We are in real trouble. AHOs and VLA tell me that the disease is virtually impossible to eradicate in cattle while there is a reservoir in wildlife".

* "In the hot spot areas, AHOs tell me that 70 percent of the cattle breakdowns are badger related. They are on the front line".

* Cattle movements geographically are important, but "both VLA and AHOs tell me that the molecular structure [of the bacteria] is unique to areas. If the issue was cattle moving Tb around, then this molecular spread would be obvious".

* Scientists not arguing about the science of culling [ badgers], but how to do it.

* "The present situation is unsustainable. Whatever policy government come up with, they will not pay for it. This is the end of the line for taxpayer's money".

* "Culling as done by the RBCT does not work. The implication is you don't do it that way".

* The rest of mainland Europe is fine with test and slaughter - they don't have a wildlife reservoir of disease.

* "Government cannot reasonably withold licenses from applicants under section 10 (9) of the Badger Protection Act"; the Act was to protect the badger before it became known that the animal was a reservoir for bTb. Moratorium 'may have been illegal', but was never challenged.

* Zoning and cattle cordon sanitaires would destroy the industry. "The cost to the farming industry [of bTb] is horrendous, both financially and emotionally. It is very frustrating for farmers and the industry".

* The spread of bTb in "Midlands and SW hotspots has grown, but not as a result of trade".

* "bTb is the most serious disease that Defra face in terms of costs and resources. This cannot carry on".

So, an hour into the discussion, Lord Rooker was asked about the formulation of a policy to reduce costs and control bTb. And it soon became evident that his eminent lordship had one, he was not going to share it with the honourable members of the EFRA committee. When asked what the first issue on the menu of any policy would be, Lord Rooker replied:
We aren't paying for it.
And contradicting his earlier mention of farmer licenses, with Defra administrating any cull, he said Defra would :
".. not be paying for operational mapping or surveillance, even if we do sanction a cull
It is also far from clear who would issue any licenses, Defra or Natural England - although the indication was of an abdication of ministerial responsibility. Lord Rooker said repeatedly that there was abundant knowledge that if we do not deal with bTb in wildlife, we can't get rid of it in cattle. But he didn't know the cost of any clearance of wildlife reservoirs, because Defra hadn't done its sums.

Money is the key, he said. It dictates policy. Mmmm. The cynical may remind his lordship of the £1 million donation from the Political Animal Lobby which stopped all badger culling in response to outbreaks of Tb in its tracks. Was that value for money? We think not. But we digress...

Lord Rooker slammed the use of gamma interferon on the grounds of cost.
It would cost £1 million before compensation [for reactors]. We're not going down that route.

Doesn't say much for his faith in its efficacy either, does it?

And although pressing ahead with vaccination research, Lord Rooker was not too enthusiastic about either cattle vaccines (illegal under EU law, and would be catastrophic for international trade) or badger vaccines (who's going to pay for it?)

He said decisions needed clarity at the top. It wasn't there. Zuchermann, Dunnett, Krebs and the ISG and still no clarity. And they didn't understand the transmission routes of the disease. Whaaaaaaaaaaaat!! 'They' may not. We do. Sheesh.

Lord Rooker asked the committee not to "fall for another enquiry" (would that be like the like the RBCT?) and he intimated a decision early in 2008. He said that the disease had to be dealt with in the round, showing respect for a valuable industry and respect for wildlife. Chairman, Michael Jack, MP concluded the proceedings with a comment that they had a unanimity of agreement; that a practical decision and a plan has to be made. And quickly.

It was pointed out that GB may be othe only country in Europe to abdicate responsibility for a statutorily notifiable zoonosis. But Lord Rooker was having none of it.
"We shall issue the license".
he said.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

If you don't like the answer.....

... ask the question again.

One of our northern contributers wrote to national newspapers at the beginning of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, asking just how many 'trials' government wanted. And he answered his own question with the ascerbic comment, 'as many as it takes to get the answer they desire'.

That was ten years ago, and much water has flowed under government bridges since then. Much cash too, with the incidence of bTb being one of the few things to fulfill governmental predictions. Lord Rooker confirmed in oral evidence to the EFRA committee on the 10th December that the Tb budget was on target for £300,000,000 by 2012. It was, he said, consuming 40 per cent of Defra's Animal Health budget.

But the diminutive prof. who chaired the dispersal trial, Professor John Bourne, was keen to point out that his 'trial' had had a political steer from the start. In fact he appeared to relish explaining to stunned MPs the difference between 'science' and his own brand of 'political science'.

He heard his master's voice in 1997, and delivered. But in ten years things have changed. And everything we, and other far more learned people than us mere farmers predicted, has come home to roost.

Lord Rooker listed many of these Tb 'chickens' in his addrees to the EFRA committee, and when we've listened to it - all 2 hours and a few minutes - we'll post a resume. Will we say 'we told you so'? You bet.

So, what are government going to do? They've wasted spent £millions on the prevarication of the Badger Dispersal trial, which at its inception was, according to its pilot, set up to deliver the obfuscation of cattle 2 v badgers 1.
7.24 ... The infection rate concerns all sources of infection for cattle, local infection for example across farm boundaries, infection from animals bought in particular(ly) but not only, from high incidence areas, and infection from wildlife, especially badgers. All these are important, but their relative importance and that of cattle-to-badger tranmission, cannot be estimated directly. In the following calculations we assume all three sources to be roughly equally important."

But times, as we said, change. And the answer government demanded then (and received) is not necessarily the answer demanded now. So, to paraphrase our contributer from Staffordshire, another session of number crunching is up for grabs 'until they get the answer they desire'.

Defra have invited tenders for 'Further Analyses of the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial databases This work is abbreviated to AHW-TB RRD 2008 - 2009 and tenders must be submitted by 18th January 2008.

Pity no one told Prof. Bourne that the goal posts had moved during his 'trial'.

One could almost feel sorry for the man. Almost, but not quite.