Lest we forget!
This is chapter 15 of the Epidemiologists: Have they got scares for you. It leans heavily on Not the foot and mouth report: everything Tony Blair did not want you to know about the biggest blunder in his premiership (Private Eye special report November 2001).
No flocks that range the valley free
To slaughter I condemn
Taught by the power that pities me,
I learn to pity them.
Goldsmith Ė The Hermit
Monday February 19th 2001 was a day much as any other for veterinary surgeon Craig Kirby, as he began a routine inspection of the pigs at an abattoir in Little Warley near Brentwood in Essex. Because of the wholesale closure of local facilities, due to the over-zealous application of European Union hygiene rules by British civil servants, by this time animals were travelling cruelly long distances to be killed. This in itself was an inhumane outrage, but it was to pale into insignificance with the nastiness yet to come. These pigs, which had come from Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight, had been showing signs of lethargy, so the vet was particularly careful in his examination, during which he noticed blisters. The last epidemic of foot and mouth (FMD) had taken place in 1967, before he was born, but he identified the symptoms and immediately called the ministry (MAFF).
The Ministry for Agriculture Fisheries and Food had achieved a certain notoriety long before these events. They had exhibited a mixture of incompetence, arrogance and complacency that seemed to typify all that was worst in the Great British Bureaucrat. They had veered wildly from suppressing evidence of real dangers to implementing senseless bans on such things as Roseclear and beef-on-the-bone. Two years before this particular crisis, I wrote in Sorry, wrong number! that they had been out of control for years. Not only was the mind-set of this organisation a recipe for disaster, its veterinary service had been savaged during the public expenditure cuts of the Thatcher Government and the number of vets was half what it had been.
34 years previously the outbreak of the disease had been confined to a small area in Cheshire and Shropshire, but now, thanks to the overweening bureaucracy and interventionist governments in London and Brussels, animals were being wretchedly transported hither and thither all over the country. By the Friday an outbreak had occurred at the run-down farm of two brothers in Northumberland, the state of their husbandry earned them nomination by MAFF as the scapegoats for the whole disaster, though no evidence was adduced until much later. It is almost certain that the disease had been around for some time in sheep, which reveal few and relatively mild symptoms. Before the crisis was a week old, outbreaks were being investigated in Gloucestershire, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Devon and Wiltshire. By the end of the month I had posted on Number Watch, under the heading mad, mad, mad! my Number of the Month which was the number of animals slaughtered, 15,000. Little did we know that this was to become a drop in the ocean.
The state of the art
It would be salutary at this stage to examine the state of knowledge of the disease and its treatment, as it existed at the commencement of the outbreak. The worldís leading laboratory in this field was the US Institute of Animal Health on Plumb Island, New York. Among its staff was one who was recognised as the leading authority, Professor Fred Brown, an Englishman and formerly the head of Britainís centre of expertise, the Pirbright Institute. In Europe the acknowledged expert was a Dutch vet, Dr Simon Barteling, who had been responsible for handling over 20 outbreaks of the disease in different parts of the world. Both these experts had worked with the most modern vaccines and had expressed their conviction that vaccination provided the key to rapid control of the disease without the need to resort to mass slaughter. Indeed, when an outbreak occurred in Albania and Macedonia in 1996, the EU, fearing a spread across its own borders, had quickly set up a vaccination programme. The outbreak was totally suppressed within a few weeks. Thus, it was not just theoretical knowledge, but practical experience with convincing results, that pointed to vaccination as being the only reasonable and effective way to tackle the disease: but the British establishment had its mind set on slaughter.
The growing crisis
As February gave way to March, the number of separate outbreaks had reached 32. Two days later, with articles in the press stating that it was unlikely to reach the proportions of the 1960s epidemic, it had got to 52, in areas as far apart as Cumbria, Dumfries, Lancashire, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight. Four days on it was 81 and after one more day it was up to 96. MAFFís chief vet, Jim Scudamore, at this stage expressed confidence that "the number of outbreaks would begin to fall by the weekend". The killing fields were now operating in earnest and the number animals already or about to be slaughtered had reached 90,000.
By now Government orders had closed down the countryside, with all footpaths and bridleways blocked off throughout the nation. Not only farming, but entire rural industries, which had all suffered from Government policies ranging from indifference to downright hostility, were threatened with imminent bankruptcy. By March 11th the Minister responsible, Nick Brown, was "absolutely certain that the disease was under control Ė we are going to eliminate it." The number of outbreaks had now reached 161. Vast funeral pyres sent the last hopes of the farming industry reeking up to heaven. Carcasses waiting to be burnt lay bloated and putrid in the fields. Shreds of half burnt skin and flesh were wafted across the fields and into peopleís gardens.
In an even more bizarre move, MAFF decided that carcases would have to be taken to a rendering plant in Widnes, Lancashire. Infected animals were carted hundreds of miles through disease-free territory. The Prime Minister was in a dilemma. He had decided to cut and run for an election a year early, no doubt being aware that the economic boom would be unsustainable beyond the autumn. He had chosen May 3rd, a date that was looking more and more unlikely as the disaster progressed. By March 16th, with cases now at 240, MAFF really began to panic. They announced a policy of "contiguous cull" which meant that all animals within three kilometre zones around known cases would be slaughtered. 18th March, 303 cases, 20th March 343 cases, 21st March 411 cases. The opposition spokesman, Tim Yeo, accused the government of incompetence in not speeding up the slaughter, while Ben Gill, NFU President, pleaded with the Prime Minister for more efficient extermination.
Enter the epidemiologist (with his computer)
Professor Roy Anderson had suddenly turned up at in 1999 at Imperial College, having resigned a chair at Oxford in somewhat shady circumstances. The details do not concern us here, but suffice it to say that a meeting of 26 professors and readers in the Department of Zoology had met and passed a motion of no confidence in him. It was said that his autocratic style had made conditions impossible and divisions ran very deep.
Professor Andersonís team, which included Dr Neil Ferguson and Dr Christl Donnelly, had been working on the use of computers to model human diseases such as AIDS, malaria and TB, but suddenly at the first outbreak of FMD they had switched their resources to this disease. By one of those strange quirks of precognition that seem to surround this crisis, Dr Donnelly had out of the blue produced a paper on this disease of animals, when all their previous work had concerned humans. By applying their models to the earlier outbreak they had come to the conclusion that the only solution was the slaughter of all animals on the day of diagnosis. However, they now went further than that. Not only were they calling for the killing of all infected animals, but they also insisted that all animals should be killed in a contiguous zone of three kilometres, which was adopted by MAFF. Anderson had the considerable advantage of being pally with the pillars of the Government scientific establishment, Sir John Krebs, chief executive of the new Food Standards Agency, Professor David King, a chemist who was the new Government Chief Scientist and Sir Robert May, the former Chief Scientist and President of the Royal Society.
It is relevant at this point to comment on the touching faith that politicians and the media have in computer models. It is generally true to say that most large computer models are not worth the magnetic oxide they are written on, and I say that as one who has been computer modelling for well over 40 years. Often they are written in the glaring absence of knowledge of the fundamental interactions on which they ought to depend. A notorious case is the climate models that predicted catastrophic global warming, when almost nothing was known about the mechanisms that control the climate. In the case of FMD, they did not even know how the disease was carried. It could be on the wind, on the wheels of vehicles or the soles of boots, in the throats of human beings or any combination of these and others.
Computer modelling has a number of attractions for academics. It does not need the resources that experimental science demands; nor does it need the long hours of careful attention required for research by measurement. In just a few hours you can create a model, just a computer program, which is so complex that no outsider can hope to unravel it. You can build in many assumptions that might well be unjustifiable under independent examination. Furthermore, the human unconscious is a mischievous influence that can produce the desired results, even for those who are not deliberately cheating. In the same few hours you can produce beautiful graphs and tables, the like of which would take months in experimental science, but which are so convincing to laymen and particularly politicians and bureaucrats. This is a point so important that it is worth an interlude of its own.
An aside on computer modelling
A theory has only the alternative of being right or wrong. A model
has a third possibility; it may be right, but irrelevant.
This is one of the most powerful tools available to science and engineering and, like all powerful tools, it brings dangers as well as benefits. Andrew Donald Booth said "Every system is its own best analogue". As a scientist he should, of course, have said in what sense he means best. The statement is true in terms of accuracy but not in terms of utility. If you want to determine the optimum shape for the members of a bridge structure, for example, you cannot build half a dozen bridges and test them to destruction, but you can try large numbers of variations in a computer model. Computers allow us to optimise designs in ways that were unavailable in times past. Nevertheless, the very flexibility of a computer program, the ease with which a glib algorithm can be implemented with a few lines of code and the difficulty of fully understanding its implications can pave the path to Cloud Cuckoo Land.
The main hazards of computer modelling can be summarised under a few headings:
At almost every stage in the development of a model it is necessary to make assumptions, perhaps hundreds of them. These might or might not be considered reasonable by others in the field, but they rapidly become hidden. Some of the larger models of recent times deal with the interactions of variables whose very nature is virtually unknown to science.
In olden times, if a scientist published a theory, all the stages of reasoning that led to it could be critically examined by other scientists. With a computer model, it is possible, within a few days of development, for it to become so complex that it is a virtual impossibility for an outsider to understand it fully. Indeed, where it is the result of a team effort, it becomes unlikely that any individual understands it.
Often vital elements can be left out of a model and the effect of the omissions is only realised if and when it is tested against reality. A notorious example is the Millennium Bridge in London. It was only after it was built and people started to walk on it that the engineers realised that they had created a resonant structure. This could have been modelled dynamically if they had thought about it. Now bridges are nothing new; they have been built for ages, and most of their characteristics are well known. There was even an example of the genre in the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge in Puget Sound, Washington, which due to resonant behaviour self destructed under rather windy conditions in 1940. Thereafter, better mathematical models for bridge oscillation were developed. Some models that produce profound political and economic consequences have never faced such a challenge.
The human subconscious is a powerful force. Even in relatively simple physical measurements it has been shown that the results can be affected by the desires and expectations of the experimenter. In a large computer model this effect can be multiplied a thousand fold. Naturally, we discount the possibility of deliberate fraud.
This word, which literally means falsification or adulteration, has come to mean advanced and efficient. In large computer models, however, the literal meaning is often more applicable. The structure simply becomes too large and complex for the inputs that support it.
When we were pioneering the applications of computer modelling about forty years ago, we soon came to the conclusion that a model is useless unless it can be tested against reality. If a model gives a reasonably accurate prediction on a simple system then we have reasonable, but not irrefutable, grounds for believing it to be accurate in other circumstances. Unfortunately, this is one of the truisms that have been lost in the enthusiasms of the new age.
Large models are often chaotic, which means that very small changes in the input variables produce very large changes in the output variables. Some very simple processes can amplify errors, taking the difference between numbers of a similar magnitude for example. The errors (or noise) are then propagated through the system. If there are feedback mechanisms present, it is quite possible for systems to operate on the noise alone.
Many of the computer models that receive great media coverage and political endorsement fail under some of these headings; and, indeed, some fail under all of them. Yet they are used as the excuse for profound, and often extremely damaging, policies that affect everyone.
That is why computer models are dangerous tools.
Back to the plot
One of the political developments that had occurred in the years leading up to the FMD crisis had been the inexorable move towards a presidential style of government. The Prime Minister, with his plans to hold an election before the economic bubble burst, himself took charge of the whole shooting match. Taking charge meant, of course, nominating individuals to do it for him. On the 22nd of March he paid a flying visit to Cumbria and was visibly shocked to meet a hail of abuse.
The result was nothing less than a complete coup. MAFF was swept aside, not only its incompetent bureaucrats but also its vets, who were the only people who had any expertise in the disease. The two men put in charge were Professor King, a surface chemist, and Professor Anderson, a computer programming human epidemiologist. It is difficult to imagine a more extraordinary choice of expertise on which to base a strategy.
By this time the dismal failure of the MAFF approach was underlined by the almost exponential rise in case numbers, to 846 by the end of the month. Andersonís computer was now in charge. Unfortunately, in addition to the inadequacies of the program itself, in the long tradition of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) the data being fed into it were hopelessly wrong. Even the start date for the outbreak of February was probably wrong, but the reporting of cases was a disaster. The cull itself was destroying the evidence of the rate of infection.
Meanwhile an outbreak occurred in Holland. The Dutch implemented an immediate programme of vaccination, which suppressed the disease almost at once. The vaccinated animals were all slaughtered, but that was only done to satisfy the EU and its fears about its meat trading status. In Britain, the carnage, which had already seemed unimaginably barbaric, was about to enter an even more cataclysmic stage. The professorís computer, like some latter day insatiable Moloch, demanded more and more blood sacrifices. The hit squads, by now not only officials but also the army, were roaming the countryside shooting, bludgeoning and drowning perfectly healthy animals.
The anecdotes from this period read like a lunaticís account of a madmanís war. A mistake in a map grid reference caused the deaths, not only of a farmerís livestock, but also his childrenís pets. Other stock were killed through clerical error. 20,000 animals in Devon were saved at the last minute when a mistaken diagnosis was discovered. Pregnant sheep were shot at random while they climbed over the corpses of their fellows. Houses were broken into so that pets could be slaughtered. Mounds of carcases lay neglected and rotting in the fields, others were transported in lorries through hitherto unaffected areas with blood dripping onto the roads. Funeral pyres sent clouds of reeking smoke across housing estates. Burial pits containing up to half a million corpses leached blood and gore into water supplies. Thousands had to be dug up again.
It was at this point, towards the end of April, that Prof King announced that the disease was "totally under control". The election, which had now been put off to June, was uppermost in political minds and the spin-doctors took over. Suddenly the slaughter of healthy cattle was not so important and sheep were put in the firing line as the main spreaders of the virus. This had the other considerable political advantage that the EU had decreed that Britain was overpopulated with sheep anyway. From now on, it would be presentation that mattered. By now the total number of outbreaks had risen to 1,517. MAFF began to present only daily figures and wiped all the historical data off its web site. Slaughterings were reclassified so that they did not appear in the daily headline figure. Outbreaks were only included when they had been confirmed by subsequent testing. Farmers in Cumbria claimed that 24 outbreaks in their area had been reported by MAFF as only 9. Most sinister of all was a sudden conversion by MAFF vets from a tendency to label every suspicious case as FMD to a reluctance to admit that even the most obvious cases were the disease at all.
Dr Paul Kitchen, Britainís leading expert on the disease, had been the most vehement critic of Prof Andersonís computer. In the face of the way the election date had been changed, with the computer predictions following conveniently, he resigned his post as deputy head of Pirbright and took up a post in Canada.
In May, as the election campaign warmed up, the situation became really weird. The media, and particularly the BBC, were lulled into a remarkable quietude by the presentation skills of the spin-doctors. They behaved as if the crisis were all but over. Out in the real world of the British countryside the slaughter had entered a new crescendo. The daily average of animals killed reached a startling 32,000. The total number of deaths was now 6 million, nearly a tenth of Britainís entire livestock. Ministers decreed the opening up of the countryside with photo-opportunities at appropriate tourist sites. Meanwhile, in places like Devon, Cumbria and Dumfries, the terror was being inflicted with greater intensity than ever. A few horror stories about armed gangs breaking in to slaughter pets leaked into the media. Farmers and animal sanctuary proprietors had begun legal challenges, many of which MAFF gave up on without a fight, by now being well aware that its actions had been quite illegal.
When another outbreak occurred in a new area, Settle in Yorkshire, MAFF suddenly refused to put the figures on its web site, citing the Data Protection Act as a reason. Secret mass burials were being carried out at the dead of night in ordinary landfill sites. Death squads of MAFF officials, backed up by dozens of policemen in riot gear, roamed the villages of Devon shooting every animal in sight. It was one of the most extraordinary examples of mass law-breaking in history, and all carried out be Government officials.
Tony Blair won his great gamble. Like his predecessor in large majority government, Margaret Thatcher, he was returned to power not by public enthusiasm for his own policies, but rather by the suicidal tendencies in the opposition. The aftermath was just as sordid as the conduct of the crisis itself. No official was punished for the massive breaches of the law. The only recognition that they had occurred was the Governmentís seeking powers to slaughter more legally in future. Calls from many influential sources for a full inquiry were ignored and the Government spin-doctors dreamed up a scheme of three innocuous mini-inquiries as a substitute. MAFF had its name changed to DEFRA, but they were the same people in the same offices with the same mind set. In the week after the election 80,000 animals were killed and in the following week 93,000. The government also began to speak of restricting farming to those with licences to carry it out.
The epidemiologists had the last word. Prof Anderson claimed in an article in Nature that one million animals and four hundred farms could have been saved if his cull policy had been "fully enforced". Even more bizarrely, Prof King stated in a TV interview that next time "vaccination would have to be top of the agenda", not explaining why next time would be different from the last. Nearly eight million animals, one eighth of all those in Britain and most of them healthy, had been slain. Mass bankruptcies occurred throughout the rural economy. Industries ranging from hotel chains to hot air balloon manufacturers were devastated. The total cost to the British economy was in the range 10 to 20 billion pounds. Promises of Government aid faded away in the miasma of bureaucratic manoeuvring and EU regulation.
And, as occurred in Holland, it could all have been avoided with a simple programme of vaccination. It was all done in the name of a theoretical disease free status, which had ironically been invented by the British. Above all, it was yet another triumph for the science of epidemiology. If you think such an ironic remark unduly provocative, consider the summing up a year later by Professor David King, the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, who described the handling of the foot-and-mouth epidemic as "quite an achievement . . . a magnificent record". He told the BBC Today programme that securing Britainís status as an FMD-free country was a cause for "celebration". Members of the European Parliament, among others, took rather a different view.
Anyway, the good professor surfaced again in January 2004. US global warming delay worse that al Qaeda bawled The Times headline. The Telegraph more modestly appended the story to a fantasy about early spring:
Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser says that climate change is a more serious threat than terrorism.
In Science magazine today, Sir David King accuses America of failing to take global warming seriously. As a consequence of the phenomenon, he says, "millions more people around the world may in future be exposed to the risk of hunger, drought, flooding and diseases such as malaria".
Now the reader might well be of that religious persuasion that adheres to the man-made global warming myth, but it depends on computer models with all the flaws that we have described above, yet are orders of magnitude larger that the ones responsible for the holocaust. Furthermore, previous warm periods have been times of the burgeoning of civilisation and culture, the disappearance of famine and the rise of prosperity. Also, as we observed way back in chapter 2, malaria is not just a tropical disease. To compare that with the threat from an evil bunch of mass murderers indicates a somewhat strange system of priorities, the sort that leads to the deaths of millions of innocent animals. Shortly after the Madrid railway bombings took place.
But enough of horror stories. Let us look at some other wonders.