Lessons of Foot and Mouth can help pandemic recovery 20 years on

Tom Wilkinson, PA

Lessons can be learned from the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak on how to rebuild after devastating social and economic loss caused by a virus, people who lived through it have said.

On February 19 2001, the highly-contagious virus was detected at an Essex abattoir, and over weeks and months it spread around the country, leading to six million farm animals being culled.

Farmers went into self-isolation to prevent disease spread and children were kept off school – and people were told to keep away from the countryside, effectively shutting it down.

Funeral pyres burned on farms across the country, a general election was delayed, sporting fixtures were postponed and the Army had to be brought in to help.

Although stringent measures were brought in for life-stock holders, Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) spread rapidly and the Government was criticised for its slow response.

Those who lived through it drew comparisons with the coronavirus pandemic, but also saw reasons to be hopeful that the country can bounce back – like they did after 2001.

Foot & mouth Netherplace pyre
A pyre of livestock during the FMD crisis (David Cheskin/PA)

Claire Bland farms in the Eden Valley, Cumbria, with husband Steven and they have built up a thriving ice cream business in the 20 years since foot and mouth struck them and many of their neighbours.

After their herd was culled in 2001, they switched to Jersey cows, opened a tea room and began making ice cream – which has been judged some of the best in the country in newspaper lists.

Their Abbott Lodge farm and visitor attraction brought in 30,000 people a year to sample their products pre-lockdown.

Mrs Bland said their business was resilient after they had gone through the “dark time” of 2001.

She told the PA news agency: “I don’t think you can have as hard a time as foot and mouth.

“We were quite brave to start the ice cream business.

“Although it has been hard work, and we still have quite a lot of borrowings, we have created something here that has transformed the business.

“Steven and me can give ourselves an occasional pat on the back.”

Claire Bland
Claire Bland at Abbott Lodge farm in the Eden Valley (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Economist Dr Charles Trotman, of the landowners’ association the CLA, was confident rural businesses – particularly those that survived 2001 – were in a good position to bounce back in 2021.

“There is the principle of pent up demand, British people need a holiday, they will stay in the UK,” he said.

“We think rural tourism businesses will be able to rebound far more quickly than they were able to after FMD.”

Kathleen Robertson was a vet at Edinburgh University when she volunteered at help the crisis in 2001, and was sent to Dumfries to work in infection control.

She is now Scottish President of the British Veterinary Association while working part-time in Track and Trace for Public Health England.

Mrs Robertson recalled the terrible consequences for farmers whose life-stock were culled, wiping out generations of breeding.

But she also remembered the camaraderie of the vets who stepped up to help during the crisis.

Of criticisms of the FMD measures at the time, she said: “When you are put in a crisis, it’s always a learning experience.

“It’s very easy to be critical when you are in the middle of it – again, that is like what we are going through now.

Jersey cows at Abbott Lodge farm in Cumbria
Jersey cows at Abbott Lodge farm in Cumbria (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“When you are in the thick of it, it’s really hard and you have to do the best you can.”

Northumberland-based farming writer Bruce Jobson remembered: “For over a year, my phone never stopped ringing from 6am, sometimes until 2am with farmers asking me for help.

“They were distressed, crying their eyes out, there were so many dead animals on their farm, they couldn’t eat because of the smell, rats, it was just appalling.”

While he was critical of the initial government response, he praised the recovery plan, which encouraged diversification into cafes, ice cream shops, bed and breakfasts and glamping.

He said: “This was Keynesian economic theory, putting money in and creating jobs.

“There are lessons to be learned from that.”

NFU President Minette Batters said the 2001 outbreak was devastating but British farming had recovered to become a world leader.

She said: “This transformation is testament to the lessons learned from Foot and Mouth and the resilience of British farming.”

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