From time to time critics of Imperial College’s COVID-19 modelling have pointed out their previous poor track record in several previous “scares,” including the catastrophic UK foot and mouth disease epidemic of 2001.
Following that up I have come across a report on that outbreak by the recently deceased journalist Christopher Brooker, and epidemiologist Richard North. Ironically the report was issued (soon after the epidemic) under the auspices of the satirical magazine Private Eye, and it’s worth noting why that was necessary.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose government royally messed up the response to the epidemic, commissioned three separate official inquiries, all of whose remits were carefully set so that none of them addressed the real failures and important lessons. This is the usual pattern of government inquiries, and we may expect that if and when any are held after COVID, they will, like the foot and mouth kind, be run by friends and cronies of those to blame, will exonerate those whose decisions ruined the country, and will result in those most culpable getting knighthoods, membership of the Royal Society, and so on. Failed experts, in other words, are rewarded with ever greater expert credentials.
For non-Brits, the 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic led to the unnecessary and cruel slaughter of much of Britain’s livestock (2000 cases, 6 million slain), devastated the farming community economically, ruined our overseas meat trade for many years, and had a profoundly negative effect on our economy overall. My memory conjures up TV footage of huge piles of dead, bloated, cattle and grim-looking farmers whose life work had just been destroyed. But I was not then living in a pastoral community – in the countryside around here, the memories are far more raw and personal. The report gives harrowing accounts of animal cruelty, intimidation by callous officials, soldiers deployed as slaughtermen, and personal ruin for many small farmers.
What is amazing, reading the report, is just how close the parallels are to what is happening in our country during the COVID year. I’ll sketch just a few.
To begin with, F&M had a similarly mysterious onset – a Northumbrian farmer was scapegoated as the source, but eventually it turned out that the epidemic had been developing quietly in sheep for months (sheep suffer less severely than pigs and cattle). There were rumours, still not refuted, that the original source was an agricultural research lab. Certainly, the report documents Ministry of Agriculture officials making “hypothetical” enquiries about timber for burning carcases weeks before the outbreak, and in that period also occurred, coincidentally, the first planning “exercise” on F&M since the last major outbreak, in the sixties. It’s reminiscent of the fortuitous timing of Event 201 last October.
Imperial College modellers managed to get involved because, for no very clear reason related to their previous research interests, they had published a paper on F&M shortly before the outbreak. Imperial College muscled in on the government’s response early on, loudly criticizing the “inadequate” MAFF response in the light of their computational models, although none of their team had any background in veterinary medicine whatsoever. They were heeded, essentially, because of the “old boy” network of government scientists, prestigious bodies like the Royal Society, and the big scientific journals. In science, it ought to be about what you know – but who you know seems to help a lot.
The Royal Society, for example, were very quick to publish non-peer reviewed papers by the Imperial team pouring scorn on the veterinary scientists who were desperately advocating vaccination, at that stage the only strategy that could have halted the outbreak, according to well-established science (quite unlike the present COVID “pie-in-the-sky” vaccination strategy). You may not know that the Imperial College paper that triggered both US and UK COVID strategy wasn’t peer-reviewed either, but that only seems to matter sometimes.
But the models (oh, familiar tale!) were faulty because of completely unrealistic inputs, amongst which was the assumption that the outbreak was new, whereas (like COVID in 2019) it had been quietly spreading around the country for months. What is so fascinating is how many of the same ambitious and forceful individuals were involved as now. Ian Ferguson is known to all. But his boss at Imperial, Prof (now Sir) Roy Anderson, is still there, still advising the government, is an FRS, has worked for the WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is a Governor of the Wellcome Trust, and a Director of GSK (of which government science mouthpiece Patrick Vallance was head of R&D, holding millions of pounds worth of shares). No conflict of interest there, then.
During F&M, Anderson was adept at getting criticisms of his opponents into the public arena. In fact, he had recently had to resign from an Oxford professorship for making libellous sexual accusations about another researcher there. You may have heard of her: Prof Sunetra Gupta, co-signatory of the Great Barrington Declaration. Isn’t it interesting how government, “official” scientific bodies and the scientific press have united once more to vilify and marginalise those, like her, who have questioned the official narrative?
Tony Blair’s chief scientist at the time was David King, another ambitious and “political” person. During COVID he has set up “Alternative SAGE,” advocating policies very little different from the real SAGE only more so.
Imperial’s model suggested to them the novel and untested strategy of “contiguous culling,” just as this time it suggested the entirely new idea of shutting down society. Historically Britain had advocated culling of infected stock, and had even persuaded the EU to abandon vaccination in its favour, which gave them various trade advantages overseas. But culling was intended, much like Track and Trace now, to isolate the virus early in an outbreak. Imperial advocated killing all stock within a radius of several kilometres from an infected – or eventually, even a suspected – outbreak. Since livestock movements had already spread infectious foci all over the country, this led to mass slaughter of often perfectly healthy herds everywhere
There were not enough vets or slaughtermen for this genocidal task, as such modelling doesn’t bother with issues like “practicability.” This led to the mass enlistment of poorly skilled, and often poorly motivated, staff (much like the unskilled people now called in either to man PCR labs, or police lockdown restrictions). Power brought out the despot in many, then as now. Many errors were made – like the destruction of a farmer’s entire life-work simply because the army went to the wrong map reference and shot the wrong herd. Woopsie.
Meanwhile, the government of Tony Blair, slowly becoming aware of what they had unleashed, sought to cover their tracks by blaming farmers for the failure of their ill-formed policies, just as Matt Hancock now blames the public for increased “cases.” Farmers had, if only for self-preservation, been scrupulous in their hygiene – it was the vets and slaughtering teams that went from farm to farm in bloody, faeces stained vehicles. The opposition, then as now, failed utterly to question the strategy and even shouted for more draconian measures.
Experts on the disease soon began advocating a proven policy of vaccination, under emergency EU provisions. However, there was external influence: the EU itself pushed hard against it, because Brussels thought it would endanger their status as a virus-free, vaccination free single market. So even then, the government took its cues from international bodies run by corrupt politicians no wiser than themselves.
As already mentioned, the scientists who had the government’s ear mobilised the media, the journals and even the professional bodies to discredit the alternative strategy rather than weigh it. Senior scientists proved to be mere apparatchiks when courage was required – that, after all, is how you get to be senior. The government wavered just enough on vaccination (on political rather than scientific grounds) to ensure the policy actually pursued was neither fish nor fowl.
In the end, it is still not clear whether the devastating cull “worked”, or whether the epidemic simply petered out naturally. Blair insisted on calling the epidemic, throughout, a mere “outbreak” – now Boris Johnson is calling a seasonal variation “the second wave of a pandemic” for equally manipulative reasons.
Brooker’s report concludes that vaccination, despite the trade problems it would have caused, would have got the British meat trade up and running again in a year or two. In the event it took far longer, with the vast additional costs both economic, human and, of course, to animal welfare.
The parallels (and some of the contrasts) between 2001 and 2020 show that our political system, including our press, is incapable of learning from even recent history. But it’s worse than that, because many of the same people were around, and even major players, in 2001. The whole SAGE/Imperial College/official science apparatus could have recognised the same kind of mistakes being made at the start of COVID – and after its end – as were made in the foot and mouth debacle. There are senior civil servants who were junior civil servants in the relevant departments then (though it must be admitted that Dominic Cummings’s centralisation of power in a 7,000 strong Cabinet Office full of bright young staff has squandered what experience remained in Whitehall). There are MPs who regretted keeping silent as their constituents’ livelihoods, and the nation’s trade, were devastated back then – and they are keeping just as silent this time round.
Then, it was unnecessary animal suffering and the destruction of agricultural communities. Now it is human suffering and the destruction of the entire economy. But now, as then, the acquiescence of ordinary people in evil is culpable above all else. As Van Morrison sings:
No more status quo – gotta put your shoulder to the wheel.