THE foot and mouth crisis sent shockwaves across the UK, and the Government’s handling of events in 2001 led to criticisms from farming communities.

It was this outrage that led to a shake up in Government with the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This replaced the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which ceased operations in 2002.

Dame Margaret Beckett was in charge of the Agricultural Ministry at the time of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. She had been appointed in June 2001, after Tony Blair had secured Labour a second thumping majority at the general election.

“At that time it was a crucial time of year. Farmers were transporting their livestock all over the country to markets,” she said.

“What farmers were paid depended on their animals and so they would go to great lengths to get the best price for their livestock.

“This made everything very difficult to track where the virus had come from. It was as if it happened at the worst possible time.”

She used the newly created ministry to enforce stricter rules to curb the spread and bring foot and mouth under control.

“There was a lot of research going on behind the scenes, someone did a map of animal movements around the country.

“One of the features of the approach was the scientific modelling, which was something new at the time.

“That’s one of the things we tried with DEFRA, we used scientific modelling to figure out how to tackle it.

“It is similar to Covid, we can model when it came into the country and how it is spreading.”

And she has absolute appreciation for the challenges the Government are facing with the Covid pandemic.

“Epidemiologists say that you should test, treat, and isolate, whether its human or an animal disease.

“This is the same for Covid, you are told to isolate to stop the spread, and wait until you have got over it before ending that isolation.

“It is the same with farms, a lot of famers were isolating to try and stop the spread. “We also advised the use of disinfectant, on vehicles, on the roads and on the paths.

“Some places did not implement these fast enough, so we stepped in in some places to make sure of it.”

Despite her lack of a farming background, she quickly learnt the challenges and difficulties the Government faced. “I’m not from a farming community myself but I had personal friends who had been affected by the 1967 Foot and Mouth outbreak. It had left a scar on the family, so I knew how it would affect people and that we needed to do all we could to stop it.

“This is peoples livelihoods, this is everything for them.

“I think one of the problems is that outside the farming communities, you would have no idea how devastating foot and mouth is.

“It is incredibly painful for the animal, so painful that they do have to be put down, that’s why there was a lot of mass burials everywhere.

“Farmers knew that but it was so important to educate people, just like now with Covid.

“We have to make sure that everyone know how bad this virus is and how we can all help stop it.”