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Lessons learned says former MP

20th anniversary of Foot and Mouth

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By Fiona Reid
Farming
Lessons learned says former MP

RUSSELL Brown found himself more in the role of a social worker than politician when foot and mouth hit the region.

For as Dumfriesshire’s MP, he was inundated with calls from desperate farmers and often worked until late into the night trying to help.

Looking back on it this week, he said: “It was a really tough time.

“What you were doing to a certain extent was sharing people’s pain and the pain people were going through was absolutely unbelievable.”

He described it as ‘probably the biggest thing’ he dealt with as an MP, adding: “It was vastly different to what you usually do as a Member of Parliament.

“People were calling the office and I was ringing them back, one time I was on the ‘phone til midnight.

“I almost likened it to being a social worker. They were concerned, they knew within themselves that their livestock could well be culled but were looking for a ray of hope. There was not a lot I could do.”

With no agricultural background himself, Russell had lots to learn and credits then UK Agriculture Minister Nick Brown for support and guidance and was also grateful for information provided by the emergency planning team at Dumfries and Galloway Council.

He could also see firsthand what was unrolling locally: “I remember very early on going to a meeting in Langholm one evening and just on the outskirts, near Skipper’s Bridge, there was a a fire there,” he said. “I had seen it on the TV but had never witnessed it and I was shocked, I said I would never forget that in my life. It’s shocking when you see someone’s livelihood has gone.”

When it came to the contiguous cull, he found himself having to explain the government’s decision to constituents and said: “That was difficult, no doubt about it.

“That was really hard for people to swallow but it was about putting in a firebreak. People eventually recognised it was the only way to deal with it.

“It was hard to switch off at that time, like it or not you were feeling other people’s pain and trying to put yourself in their position.

“I had visited farmers in the past but was not close to the farming fraternity, although coming from this area that was very heavily agricultural, I did have friends in the sector.”

Recalling debate around a vaccine, the former Labour MP said: “No doubt people thought the way out of this was a vaccine but the decision was made that we have got to wipe this out. Vaccination only offers protection, it does not kill it, was the information we were getting.

“It was not an easy call and, no doubt, it angered people.”

He hosted Prime Minister Tony Blair on a visit to the council ‘bunker’ in Dumfries, remembering: “His visit was important. He was not given a warm reception but he recognised that.

“He was sympathetic in respect of the whole outbreak.”

And Russell helped convince the PM to delay the General Election for several weeks due to the outbreak.

As well as farming, other businesses in the region were affected by events.

“There was a wider impact and the timing of everything meant people in the tourism sector made contact as well, they took a few months to come through,” he said. “The advice obviously was to try and avoid rural areas. It sounds like good advice but it was almost like asking for the impossible. So, tourism was affected.

“We were trying to deal with cases as quickly as we could and get the countryside reopened.”

It was not until ‘early autumn’ that the team felt things were starting to ease although there was still a lot of ‘angst, anger and anxiety’ locally.

And the focus then was on getting compensation paid out.

Russell added: “I would have said it was a good 12 months for the initial impact to ease, before the dust began to settle – if the judgement is that it’s getting better when people stop talking about it.”

He admits his heart sunk in 2007 when reports came through of cases in Surrey, saying: “I thought ‘Oh God, not again’.

“2007 was a much smaller outbreak but they went back to the original reports and learned lessons. You have got to learn from these things.”

And now he’s watching the handling of another pandemic and comparing it with 20 years ago.

Russell said: “Where we are today, this – to a certain extent – is worse. “I am sure farmers would say different, but there is really pressure on.

“The lesson learned in 2001 is about moving quickly to lock down.

“Now we have a government and devolved administrations starting to relax things, it’s the old saying of you have got to be cruel to be kind, you have to take the rough with the smooth.

“This is a nightmare, but people will get the chance to come back. We saw that last time.”

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