Rural tsar who advised government during foot-and-mouth crisis reflects on learnings twenty years on

The rural tsar who helped advise Tony Blair’s Government at the time of the foot and mouth crisis has admitted the emergency response was too centralised and failed to capitalise on local knowledge to contain the spread of the disease.

Lord Haskins claimed that the rapid nature of the outbreak could have been curtailed if Ministers had opted to rely on the expertise of authorities and vets in the communities that had been affected in 2001.

Lord Haskins claimed that the rapid nature of the outbreak could have been curtailed if Ministers had opted to rely on the expertise of authorities and vets in the communities that had been affected in 2001.

The Labour peer told The Yorkshire Post that delays in processing data and potential outbreaks meant the disease continued to spread to neighbouring farms.

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Lord Haskins, the son of a dairy farmer who lives in Skidby, near Beverley, said: “The main lesson that I think had to be learnt was that every outbreak had to be cleared by London, which meant that the response was far too over-centralised.

“The Government could easily have let the local authorities and vets deal with the outbreaks, they had the expertise and knowledge to deal with the disease.

“However, there was sometimes a delay of two or three days before the information was processed and acted upon, meaning foot and mouth had continued to spread.

“You can see the same problems with the Government today, it has been so slow to react in many instances to all that is going on with coronavirus.

“Centralised government can be very cumbersome, and when you have to react to a crisis, you need to be able to take advantage of the local knowledge on the ground.”

The peer had a fractious relationship with many in the farming industry during and after the outbreak in 2001, with many feeling that he had played down the effect which foot and mouth had on rural communities.

A sign emblazoned with the slogan “Cull Haskins” remained in the Yorkshire Dales for many years after the crisis.

However, Lord Haskins is adamant 20 years on from the outbreak that a small number of farmers took advantage of the situation.

The former chairman of Northern Foods, who is credited with shaping the chilled food market during his tenure at the Yorkshire-based company which now has its headquarters in Wakefield, said: “There was a problem with people over-stating the situation and how they had been affected.

“It is not to say that foot and mouth did not have a devastating impact, and it was very traumatic for the countryside.

“But the Government provided a very generous compensation scheme, which some unscrupulous farmers took advantage of.

“There was a feeling among some in the farming community that they actually would have preferred to have suffered an outbreak, as that would have meant they would have received compensation.”

And while the 11 months during which the outbreak raged across the UK before the country was declared free on foot and mouth in January 2002 had a profound impact on rural communities, Lord Haskins stressed that normality returned far quicker than many had predicted.

The life peer, who left the House of Lords in December last year, said: “There were claims that the rural economy was on the brink of collapse and it would take years for things to get back on track.

“But what struck me was how quickly things did get back to normal. Of course, foot and mouth had a huge impact, and people were denied access to places like the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales for a summer.

“But I have always thought that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and tourism was back the following year.

“People did not forget about these places, and were even keener to return once the crisis was over.”