Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for
Agriculture and Rural Development

Friday 16 March 2001


Members present:

Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Douglas
Mr Dallat
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr McHugh
Mr Paisley Jnr


Ms Rodgers)The Minister of Agriculture and

Mr P Small)and Rural Development

Mr B McCracken)Department of Agriculture

1. The Deputy Chairperson: Minister, you are welcome and we are grateful that you came to update the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on the present situation. You have agreed to stay with us for 45 minutes and we really appreciate that.

2. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Bríd Rodgers): As always, I am conscious that many Committee members will have questions to put to me, so rather than spending a lot of time on my opening remarks, I intend to simply update the Committee on what has happened since I spoke to you last week.

3. I am glad to report that, despite a scare during the week, we still have had only one confirmed case of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland. The suspect we had in Tyrone was very worrying and it was a great relief when the preliminary tests proved to be negative. I expect to have the results of the final test by midnight tonight.

4. There has been much media interest in the so-called "missing 60 sheep". The consignment of infected sheep, which led to our outbreak, may have been larger than we had first thought. As I said in my statement in the Assembly on 12 March 2001, there is no certainty at all that there were any such sheep. However, we have received anecdotal reports that there could be; and I am duty bound to follow these reports up. My Department is pursuing this with the utmost vigour but there is still no evidence that the sheep ever existed. We have to consider the possibility that this suggestion may simply be wrong.

5. The other development during the past week was my announcement of some relaxation of the animal movement controls to deal with emerging welfare problems. I want to stress that those relaxations will be very limited. My officials will only grant them where there are real welfare problems that cannot be solved any other way. I am acutely aware that farmers are suffering great stress as a result of this latest crisis. With effect from next Monday I am establishing a confidential rural support helpline aimed at providing support and practical advice for farmers and the wider rural community. Full details will appear in the press later today.

6. In addition, over the past week, I have continued to have regular meetings with the inter-departmental group of officials to ensure that emerging issues are explored and dealt with in a joined-up way across Government. Departmental officials have continued to meet with the Army and the RUC to discuss relevant issues with them and the Executive Committee guidelines have continued to appear in the press across Northern Ireland.

7. The foot-and-mouth disease situation in GB, as the Committee will know, is still very serious, with no sign yet that the outbreaks there are tailing off - indeed the opposite is the case. Each day continues to bring a record number of fresh cases. Obviously it will be many months before GB is able to trade normally again and that means that the controls we have in place in relation to GB animals and products may have to stay for the same period.

8. Ministerial colleagues from England, Scotland and Wales are also considering a pre-emptive cull of apparently healthy sheep, in case they are harbouring foot-and mouth disease. They also announced a welfare slaughter and disposal scheme, intended to deal with livestock and serious welfare difficulties in the protection and surveillance zones in GB. A similar action is not called for in Northern Ireland and I sincerely hope that it will not be.

9. As regards the wider implications of the foot-and- mouth disease controls, my Department is continuing to receive increasing numbers of requests for exception to be made for particular activities and events. As we approach the start of the tourist season at Easter, it is clear that many rural tourism-based businesses are suffering financial pressures as a result of this crisis. I sympathise greatly with those problems. However, the scale of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in GB, its uncertain extent elsewhere in Europe and beyond and the consequences to its further spread to Northern Ireland are such that I have no alternative but to retain the controls that have proved so effective in protecting us so far. That said, I recognise that we will be able to revisit those controls in the next couple of weeks, as I undertook to do at the outset of the crisis. However, whether it will be prudent to relax any of our controls is another matter. Indeed, given the geographic spread of foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain, it may be that we will have to step up some aspects of the controls on incoming passengers and vehicles.

10. It would be remiss of me to finish without emphasising that two critical points remain on foot-and- mouth disease in Northern Ireland. One is at the point of entry from Great Britain, and the other is at the farm gate. There is absolutely no justification or sense in any farmer breaching both of those controls by leaving his or her farm to go to any of our ports unless there is absolutely no alternative.

11. The ports, not south Armagh or Dungannon, present the greatest risk of spreading foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland at the present time. That is all I need to say at this time, but I will be happy to discuss the situation further and to take questions.

12. The Deputy Chairperson: On television over the past 24 hours, we have seen the rising number of cattle and animals in Great Britain that are to be slaughtered or incinerated. I do not want to see that in Northern Ireland, and you are certainly taking the right line. People have got to realise the Northern Ireland is only as big as any county in England. If the disease were to spread further, we would be completely wiped out. There is a lot of concern in rural areas at the present time.

13. Mr Dallat: Up until now, the vast majority of people have respected the restrictions that you have imposed. I note this morning that the Wildlife and Wetland Trust has decided to go London to seek advice on the re-opening of Castle Espie. I am interested in your views. Is this not a devolved matter that should have remained in Northern Ireland?

14. Ms Rodgers: I heard something on the radio this morning about that. I cannot make a judgement on the situation at Castle Espie because I am not aware of all the circumstances. The Executive in Northern Ireland have issued guidelines to people running events or in relation to their own areas or individual responsibilities. Those guidelines are based on the situation in Northern Ireland, which is quite different to that in Great Britain.

15. For instance, I was able to take an immediate decision - not without some disapproval from across the water -to close the ports to imports of live cattle and products from Great Britain. That cut us off at a time when it was extremely important that no more animals or products arrived with the potential of spreading the disease here. Fortunately, we have been able to restrict it to one outbreak so far. It is clearly in all our interests that we do that. Culling has had to take place on a welfare basis in Great Britain but, as our situation is different, we have been able to avoid that by allowing very restricted short movements under supervision and under licence. Our main focus is to keep the disease out of Northern Ireland and to prevent it spreading further.

16. It is unhelpful, to put it mildly, that people who are taking decisions on what they do in Northern Ireland seek guidance from either the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or from the Department of Environment in England in the case of Castle Espie. People should be aware that we have a devolved administration and made our own decisions based on our own needs and the problem here. If they want advice or guidance in relation to Northern Ireland they should come to us for it. If they want advice or guidance in relation to Great Britain, that is a matter for Great Britain.

17. Mr Small: During the course of today we will make clear to people within Government in Great Britain that they should not give advice on Northern Ireland if it is sought. They should refer people to the Department of Agriculture here. There are some misunderstandings over there, which we will correct today.

18. The Deputy Chairperson: The last time you were here we discussed the incubation period, which will soon be up. When do you feel the safe period - if there is such a thing - will begin?

19. Ms Rodgers: My advice is that we will need 30 clear days from the time that the original outbreak at Meigh was cleansed and disinfected. The clock started ticking for those 30 days as soon as the cleansing and disinfecting was completed, and 30 days from there will be around the sixth or seventh of April. We will be in a much better position at that point, if there are no further outbreaks, to review the situation and see what we can do. We must retain our vigilance, and in particular, increase our vigilance at the ports.

20. Mr Paisley Jnr: We welcome the fact that Northern Ireland farmers will not be put in the situation, at present anyway, of seeing the mass slaughter of their herds as is happening in England and Scotland. I hope that that remains the case, and we can keep the situation at bay.

21. I want clarification on two issues. You wrote to the Committee in the last week and indicated that over 15,000 sheep and 1,086 cattle were imported to Northern Ireland for immediate slaughter. Can you assure the Committee that all the animals were slaughtered, as that was the basis upon which they were brought in? If that assurance is not available can you indicate to us what checks and balances will be put in place to insure that when animals are brought in on immediate slaughter permits in the future, those immediate slaughter rules and regulations will be honoured?

22. Secondly, you indicated last week that you would be raising the matter of consequential compensation arrangements with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Can you update us about any progress that has been made in that matter?

23. Ms Rodgers: You referred to the 15,000 sheep and 1,086 cattle that have entered Northern Ireland since the beginning of the year. They were recorded imports for immediate slaughter. Given our experience in the last few weeks, I am reluctant to put my hand on my heart and say that all of those animals have gone for immediate slaughter because there were people who were flouting the regulations. I hope that most of the animals were slaughtered. Of course, those animals that came in before 1 February do not represent a threat, at least from a foot-and-mouth disease point of view, because that was before the period started.

24. The system for checks and balances will be reviewed in light of the experiences of the last number of weeks. We will be looking carefully at it and will co-ordinate our efforts with the Government in the Republic, and I have spoken to Joe Walsh about it. Our checks and balances at the ports clearly have implications for the whole island. We will be reviewing all of that to ensure that the flouting of the law that has happened will not happen again.

25. I asked for the issue of consequential compensation to be put on the agenda. I do not detect any enthusiasm in the UK Administration and the Treasury for the granting of consequential compensation.

26. Mr Small: One of the main financial focuses in Whitehall at the moment is the cost of the welfare slaughter scheme, which the Minister referred to. There is no enthusiasm for wider consequential compensation.

27. Mr McCracken: I want to assure the Committee that we are confident that all animals imported to Northern Ireland have been traced. We have on record somewhere the number of animals that went directly to slaughter - as required under certification - and how many did not. Rest assured that all animals have been checked and we believe there is no threat of foot-and-mouth disease from these figures presented.

28. Mr Paisley Jnr: Are you content that all those animals have been slaughtered?

29. Mr McCracken: I am saying that they have all been traced. They have either been slaughtered, or if they are alive, they do not represent a foot-and-mouth risk.

30. Mr Paisley Jnr: What falls from that? Why are some of them still alive when they were brought in for immediate slaughter?

31. Mr McCracken: Currently they are under restriction. The action to be taken with those animals will be sorted out later, but we are now dealing with the emergency situation and it is a higher priority. The animals are tied up and cannot move.

32. Mr McHugh: At the outset of the foot-and-mouth outbreak you had a meeting at 10 Downing Street with Tony Blair and the British Government officials. Some people are wondering what was discussed on that occasion. The British Government have set a date for an election. Do you feel that they are ignoring the foot-and-mouth crisis in Britain and are they also imposing a similar situation on us? Why should we follow suit when they are relaxing their measures in a haphazard way? This week they are allowing people to go back into the countryside asking them to be careful not to get into contact with livestock and to be cautious in tourist areas. Do you think that they expect us to relax our measures accordingly? Is that the message being sent to people here, because I think that is what is happening?

33. Ms Rodgers: I have reported on the Downing Street meeting and I made clear, at that stage, that the Prime Minister's commitment to regionalisation for Northern Ireland was a distinct possibility. At that point we had no foot-and-mouth disease. On returning to Northern Ireland, I was very disappointed to learn that we had our first case of the disease. However, the outcome of that meeting from our point of view was positive. Other issues discussed at that meeting related to the situation in Great Britain.

34. We do not have to follow Great Britain's lead and I have made that clear. We have a devolved Government in Northern Ireland and are making our own decisions. The first important decision made by the devolved Administration was to close the ports. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is continuing to monitor the situation here, which is totally different to what is happening in Great Britain. The majority of people are taking their guidance from the Executive and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and I am pleased with the response that we are getting.

35. The decision on the election is not a matter for me to comment on except to say that if there is a Westminster election it will also have to be fought here.

36. The Deputy Chairperson: Is there any possibility that those people who are bringing cattle into Northern Ireland will have to be registered and follow a strict code of conduct?

37. Ms Rodgers: I understand your concern but those matters have to be looked at. Joe Walsh is looking at that issue at the moment. All of those matters, including registration, will have to be examined so that the regulations can be tightened to ensure that this does not happen again.

38. Mr Kane: I commend you and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on the controls put in place so far. However, are the controls strict enough at ports, airports and at the border, and will they be enforced and adhered to across the Province? I have received some reports of lorries freely driving through ports with little or no inspection and without being disinfected.

39. Ms Rodgers: There are two things I want to say about that. Firstly, there are controls at the ports and airports. I came through the airport myself the other day and it was very clear. There was an announcement on the aircraft and at the arrivals desk. The mats and the disinfectant cabin were in place for anyone who had been on a farm or near animals at all. We have to depend on people who have been in touch with livestock to come forward. We cannot force individuals to get disinfected. It would be a bit daft, particularly if they have been to a meeting in London, having come from Belfast.

40. I am hearing anecdotes all the time. There is an old saying in the Irish language which is "Dúirt bean liom gur dhúirt bean léi gur chuala sí bean a rá." It means "a woman told me that another woman told her that she heard another woman saying." I have yet to have anyone give me a specific incident where somebody came through the port and something happened. I have been at the port in Larne and have seen what they are doing. I have been at Larne. Not only are people going through the disinfectant mats, but the lorries are being sprayed.

41. We are looking at taking action that will be even more effective. The most important points of defence against this disease are at the port and the farm gate. Farmers should stay away from the ports, because there is bound to be some virus in the air there. People are bringing it in from Great Britain. Farmers should ensure at their own farm that they have taken all the necessary precautions - putting down disinfectant, adopting a 'fortress farm' attitude - and that they do not allow people in unnecessarily. If every single farmer keeps their own farm safe, then we are almost there.

42. Mr Kane: Better safe than sorry.

43. Ms Rodgers: Absolutely. I am sure that you are doing that, Gardiner.

44. Mr Ford: I am grateful that you have come before us again, and congratulate you on what has been done. This may be anecdotal evidence, but I have heard that not all that should have been done was being done within the ports. The fact that these anecdotes are so widespread show that we cannot be complacent. I appeal to you to ensure that your officials double- and triple-check what is being done at the ports.

45. I remember my sister arriving at Aldergrove from central London, having been nowhere near livestock, in 1967 and being forced to go through a spray. There is a problem if people are being self-selected for proper checking. If we have the concerns that you have expressed about the ports and airports, there may need to be more stringent action against all visitors.

46. Last week I asked Dr McCracken about movement permits. I heard a story recently about somebody in County Antrim, well away from the infected area, who is having difficulty in moving a horse a distance of less than a mile. I have not been able to get to the bottom of it. Dr McCracken, exactly what checks are there on the movement of horses in that kind of local arrangement?

47. Ms Rodgers: I will allow Dr McCracken to deal with that point in a minute. I am very pleased to hear that people are having difficulty getting permission. It is a good sign that we are not being lax in any way. In relation to the first part of your remarks, if you could give me a specific incident rather than an anecdote, we could deal with it.

48. We are double-checking at the ports all the time. A senior official in the Department has been put in charge of that. He is keeping an eye on those things for us. We have a vet in charge of the ports, who is dealing with it on the ground. We are being careful. I reiterate that the farm gate is the main point of defence.

49. We have looked at the idea of the spray. There are two issues there. First of all, there is the medical advice that we are getting. There are adults, children and babies who have asthma. That would make the spray impossible to administer, and indeed undesirable. Second, there is the human rights issue that would come into play. Although we looked at it, I do not think that it will be feasible. It would be unfair to make individuals who have not been, and who will not be, in contact with animals or farms go through it.

50. Anyone who has been in contact with a farm or farm animals is bound to be someone who has an interest in the agriculture industry. I would find it hard to believe that anyone in that category would fail to take the necessary precautions. All I can do is say that we have provided the opportunity and the facility for people to do that. I appeal to them again: if they have been in that situation, they should simply avail of the facility that is there.

51. Dr McCracken: I emphasise again that as far as disinfection of vehicles and so on at ports is concerned, we are realistic enough to realise that virus potential will come in despite anything that we are currently doing or will be able to do over the next weeks and months. We need to be practical and recognise that the virus is going to get through the ports, through a car or whatever, and we do not have a hope of stopping that. We must have a line of defence where it is most needed, which is, as the Minister says, at the farm gate. That is critical. Remember that the A75 passes through territory that is rife with foot-and-mouth disease cases.

52. As regards horses, the concessions that we have given are threefold. First, in-foal mares are permitted to move. Secondly, a horse requiring treatment that can only be done at the surgery, as opposed to on the farm, can get a licence to be moved to the surgery. Thirdly, mares can go to stud to be covered. We have made no other exceptions. One could argue at the moment that Meigh is as safe as, if not safer than, most other areas in Northern Ireland, and we cannot for one moment assume that everything is fine in the rest of Northern Ireland. It is a controlled area. The Minister has ensured that. That controlled area must remain in place with strict conditions and controls.

53. Ms Rodgers: Incidentally, horses going into surveillance areas to stud must stay there. They are not allowed back out.

54. Mr Douglas: I congratulate you, Minister, and your staff on your efforts. You are in a no-win situation, but many people on the ground congratulate you on what you have done.

55. It is important that we should be responsible, and at the same time reasonable. I welcome the changes that have allowed people to move stock. It is important that there has been some relaxation on welfare grounds. We have to be responsible, and you seem to have been doing that. I hope that that is always under review. There are people out there who are finding it difficult to get their stock moved. I know the controlled area is three miles, and perhaps those a few miles away can have a bit more leeway. It is important, as there are those who need that. Members are being pressed on that a lot.

56. There has been a sigh of relief in the past couple of days regarding the possible outbreak. You said this morning that we need to be on our guard for at least two months. That is very important. That brings me back to a point that was raised by others about port of entry. That is an important issue and we have to put in every effort that we can. There is a lot of criticism of everyone on the border, but I think that our ports are the main problem and we have to look into that. I hope that the Minister and the Department will put something better into place for the future so that we can check all stock coming into Northern Ireland in a stricter way. I know that there are EU guidelines and rules. However, it has been much more difficult to get stock out of Northern Ireland to Scotland and elsewhere than it has been to bring it in. That has become very clear recently. I hope that that is something that you will take with you. We feel that tighter restrictions need to be put in place to protect our whole industry. We need to be responsible.

57. Ms Rodgers: I thank Mr Douglas for his remarks, particularly his opening remarks. I appreciate it. He made a point about further relaxation of the restrictions because of the difficulties being faced by farmers, not just on welfare grounds but on other grounds such as feeding and fodder.

58. I understand that MLAs and public representatives - particularly the members of this Committee - have been under pressure from farmers who are having difficulties because they cannot move their livestock. I also appreciate the responsible attitude taken by public representatives and members of the Committee. The only relaxation that we have made - if one could call it that - is in relation to welfare, where it was absolutely essential. I was pleased to be able to do even that much, because there could have been the possibility of real suffering for ewes lambing and cattle calving out on the hills.

59. However, movement is still restricted to distances of five kilometres. We will keep that under review, and if we do not have another case of foot-and-mouth in the next few weeks we may be able to make further adjustments. However, as Mr Douglas rightly pointed out, the emphasis on east-west movement will become stricter rather than more relaxed. I would like to reach a situation where we can begin to relax some of the restrictions both for farmers and the public, but we have yet to reach that stage.

60. Mr Armstrong: Most of the points have been made by now, but I want to add that we are fortunate to have our own Government at Stormont. It was a real plus for us having a Minister to take the bull by the horns, as it were, over foot-and-mouth. Although we all thought the ports were not closed quickly enough, I think that you have done a good job, especially in tightening any loopholes. We could all learn a lesson from that.

61. We have also had problems with BSE, where infected products have come in from other areas because people in those areas were not doing their jobs properly. When this is all cleared up we should make sure products and stock coming into Northern Ireland are of the best quality and disease-free.

62. Some farmers are now overstocked with animals and need to move them off their farms as they are getting low in silage or hay. Could there be a relaxation, for welfare reasons, to allow beef finishers looking for stock on to overstocked farms? Could beef farmers move healthy stock to another farm under some sort of permit? It would be a "once only" permit and the cattle could not be moved a second time.

63. Ms Rodgers: Thank you for your remarks. I could not have closed our ports any earlier. As a matter of fact they were closed on the evening of the announcement, and we had sent stuff back that was on the high seas.

64. In relation to BSE, you are probably referring to the spinal cord material that came in to Northern Ireland. The Committee will understand that that is a matter for the Food Standards Agency, and I understand that it is dealing with that. It is a matter of great concern because it is a public health issue, and we have had a number of incidents recently.

65. I am aware that not being able to move store cattle to the finishers is a problem, but I do not consider it to be a welfare problem. It is purely a trade or commercial problem; farmers are having difficulty feeding the store cattle and finishers are having difficulty getting their hands on them. Farmers are being hit in their pockets - particularly those who have held on to their stores - but everyone in Northern Ireland is suffering the consequences of the restrictions, not just the farmers. I am certainly not in a position to allow any movement on that basis for a few more weeks.

66. Currently, movement is only allowed purely on the grounds of welfare and nothing else. Moving stores to finishers is not a welfare issue.

67. Mr Armstrong: Would it be allowed if it could be proved that it was a welfare issue?

68. Ms Rodgers: Are you talking about trying to get around the rules?

69. The Deputy Chairperson: We have a short period of time left. If Members ask quick questions perhaps we can have quick answers.

70. Mr Dallat: Minister, this Committee has been generous in its appreciation of your officials and yourself. However, perhaps when you are out and about you will say a special word of thanks to the men in the oilskins who have been out for several weeks. They are the unsung heroes of the situation. They must be told that their work is deeply appreciated.

71. Ms Rodgers: Absolutely. We should not forget that. When I visited the edge of the one kilometre zone in the Meigh area last week it was a very cold, wet and windy day. The men in the oilskins were on the road doing the difficult work of stopping and disinfecting cars. It was not pleasant work. Those men are out day and night, and it is an extremely difficult situation for them. I said to them - and I am glad that you have given me the opportunity to do so publicly - that the work they are doing on a continuous basis is extremely important and much appreciated.

72. Mr Paisley Jnr: Do you think that it would be useful for the Committee in the future to conduct an investigation into the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, in order to find out how it got here and to propose measures to ensure that it never happens again? Would that help the Department?

73. Ms Rodgers: Any help that the Committee can give or any investigation that it wants to conduct would be useful. I will be able to look at the overall situation once we move on from the current focus of simply keeping the disease out of Northern Ireland. As I have said, I will examine all the implications of events over the past few weeks and what measures can be taken. I am only too glad to avail of the Committee's help, or of any ideas that it brings forward.

74. Mr McHugh: Dr McCracken said that the virus could travel in vehicles. Large numbers of vehicles en route to ports here are travelling through at least eight exclusion zones. They pose a considerable risk. Are their destinations and the type of product that they are carrying being checked? Are they going to rural areas?

75. Ms Rodgers: Most of the vehicles travel down the motorway through a heavily infected area. They and the list of goods they have onboard are checked at the ports. Every vehicle is stopped. The list is checked on the other side and again on this side - is that correct?

76. Dr McCracken: Yes.

77. Ms Rodgers: Vehicles go through disinfectant baths and are then sprayed. That is the situation.

78. Mr McHugh: Air-conditioning systems bring the virus into the vehicle. There will be contact and more of a risk.

79. Dr McCracken: The Minster has been trying to say to the Committee today that there is no doubt at all that there are vehicles coming from Great Britain that will have the virus on the inside and the outside of them. As they drive up the A75 they draw in more than fresh air. In our view that represents no risk to Northern Ireland's livestock population provided that it stays on the road - side road, main road or whatever. The danger exists at the farm gate. A vehicle with the virus, and its passengers - bear in mind that people can carry this in their noses and respiratory tracts - represent no danger until they come in to contact with livestock. The Minster and I keep reinforcing the point that the primary focus of control is at the farm gate. Livestock is in danger if farmers do not take responsibility.

80. Mr Douglas: I know that foot-and-mouth disease is the most important issue for now. Payments are due to the farming community. Will you assure us that every effort will be made to ensure that those payments are forthcoming? They are important at this time.

81. Ms Rodgers: I am very conscious of that. We are already making the less-favoured area (LFA) payments, and we are attempting to expedite all other payments. We do recognise the need to get cash into the farmers' pockets at a time when many of them are having cash flow problems.

82. Mr Ford: Is there any Northern Ireland input to the task force under Michael Meacher's leadership announced by the Prime Minister? Or have you considered a Northern Ireland equivalent?

83. Ms Rodgers: There will of course be input from Northern Ireland through the Executive Committee. That was made clear to us at the meeting a few days ago. There are issues that cover the whole of the UK, and those need to be discussed.

84. In relation to our task force, the Executive has, as you know, had a number of emergency meetings. We have set up an interdepartmental team of officials, who have already met six times and will meet again next week. We met this week to deal on a cross-departmental basis with what has been done, and we will continue to look at the situation. All of my focus, and that of the Executive, has been on confining the infection to one case and on keeping it out. We will look at what we need to do when we get over the problem, but that is the situation at the moment and we have taken those measures on a cross-departmental and Executive basis.

85. Again, our situation is different here. I do not yet know the remit of that task force. I only know that we will be making an input. The task force seems to be taking a broader view, and is, for the moment, looking at areas outside the immediate problem. To be quite honest, at the moment I really do not want to focus on anything except the matter in hand, and that is to keep us disease-free.

86. Mr Kane: Can you estimate how long it will be before we have regionalisation?

87. Ms Rodgers: If I knew that, I would tell you. To begin with, if the Meigh case is the only one, we will have to be clear over the first 30-day period. I am keeping it in mind, and I will move on it as soon as possible after that. On an informal basis, I am keeping colleagues in Europe aware of the fact that this will happen. I am encouraged that, a few days ago, France regionalised the area of their first outbreak. We will be able to use that to our advantage when we seek regionalisation, because the precedent has been set. We will proceed as soon as we can make the case.

88. Mr Armstrong: Are there any plans to inform the general public through the media of the dangers of the disease, and of how they can be more careful in their movements?

89. Ms Rodgers: The guidelines have been running in the local and daily newspapers for some time, and I hope that people have read them. There is also a web site, which has had over 350,000 hits since it started.

90. Mr Small: It is rising. Every day there are thousands and thousands.

91. Ms Rodgers: We are using every possible means of communication to get the message to the public. I would reiterate that the implications for Northern Ireland if this disease is not eradicated are huge. The agri-food industry is very important. Our tourism and agriculture industries are interlinked in a very big way. Many of our farming communities depend on part-time tourism work, so the knock-on effect on the whole of Northern Ireland would be very serious from an economic point of view.

92. The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you, Minister. We hope that you will come back next week to brief us again.

93. Ms Rodgers: I will, of course.

94. The Deputy Chairperson: We look forward to that. I remind the Committee and all those present that they have all been in contact with farmers. It demonstrates just how easily the disease can be spread. We must always be on our guard, no matter where we go. I can only echo the Minister's call for everyone to do his or her best to overcome this disease. I hope that when the Minister returns next week she will have no new outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease to report.

95. Ms Rodgers: I could not agree more

9 March 2001 / Menu / 23 March 2001