Express & Star comment: Pandemic not a million miles away from foot and mouth

Twenty years ago Britain was plunged into a crisis as a dreaded disease reared its head and, before it was all over, left a heartbreaking toll.

Foot and mouth has shown that Britain can bounce back from diseases and their economic impact.
Foot and mouth has shown that Britain can bounce back from diseases and their economic impact.

Foot and mouth disease was first detected in Brentwood in Essex in February 2001. And from then on it was months of bad news which left the countryside and the agricultural industry reeling.

There were aspects with which we are now all too familiar. There was a lockdown, restrictions on movement, tourism was destroyed and countless events cancelled, including of course the showpiece agricultural shows like the West Mid.

There was mass slaughter. Farmers who had devoted their lives to their livestock watched in despair. There were vast burial pits, and ominous pyres in the fields. A cruel twist was that a lot of it was precautionary, to halt the spread of the disease – the vast majority of those slaughtered were not infected.

Then the figures began to turn. Nationally, May 17, 2001, turned out to be the first day for three months with no new cases. In August almost all foot and mouth restrictions had been lifted.

It had been the worst crisis to hit the countryside for 34 years.

There are parallels with today, and there are ways in which the events of 20 years ago were very different. Most obviously, it was not a human disease, and while it brought widespread inconvenience, the economic hardship and psychological scarring fell on the farming industry and those who relied on the countryside for their livelihoods.

Also, foot and mouth disease was turned around in about six months. Covid-19 is still with us and killing people in large numbers almost a year on from the original lockdown, and its effects will be felt for many more months, and perhaps years, to come.

What we can take from the rural disaster of 2001 is that despite being hit by staggering blows, farming bounced back.

With the UK figures at last heading in the right direction, the Covid crisis is at a new phase, that of the early stirrings of a long recovery.

There is going to be a colossal rebuilding exercise in the wake of the pandemic. It's going to be a long haul, but the example of the recovery of agriculture after foot and mouth offers a message of hope for wider society.

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