Exercise Blackthorn: If Foot and Mouth broke out today what would happen?

If Foot and Mouth broke out in Northern Ireland today, ports would close, Balmoral Show would be cancelled and a lock-down on all animal movements would be put in place – but don’t expect to see the pyres of burning cattle symbolic of 2001.

Speaking exclusively to AgriLand, chief veterinary officer Robert Huey explains how the region is prepared for the worst-case scenario – what exactly would happen during an outbreak and why.

Last week, the UK completed a major Government exercise to test procedures for Foot and Mouth.

The multi-agency effort – dubbed ‘Exercise Blackthorn’ – involved senior figures from the civil service; police and fire and rescue; as well as industry representatives – such as those from meat plants and the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).

Major exercise

Part of the exercise took place in Northern Ireland, with medium-to-large scale outbreaks also simulated in England, Wales, Scotland.

Huey said it also represented a learning exercise for newer staff, with the proportion of those remembering the 2001 epidemic decreasing.

Nigel Gibbens, Defra chief veterinary officer, makes plans for England

“If we were to get Foot and Mouth in Northern Ireland, it would cost hundreds of millions to the country in lost sales,” he said.

“As soon as you get one of these diseases, other countries stop taking your animal products and live animal exports – milk, beef, pork – the whole lost just stops.

“The cost isn’t just in the animals lost as part of the control programme, but also the cost of the lost export sales and loss of reputation.

You try to find it as quickly as you can and you try to stamp it out as quickly as possible before it spreads – and that’s why it’s an important exercise to be able to do that properly.

The outbreak

The simulation ‘game’ is written to test the most challenging circumstances.

The Exercise Blackthorn simulation began with a suspected outbreak on a dairy farm in Shropshire – just a few kilometres from the Welsh border.

The hypothetical farmer had noticed his cows were lame with a drop in milk; the next day his cows were salivating so he called a vet. The local vet raised the alarm with Defra and APHA and samples were confirmed as Foot and Mouth.

Managing the outbreak

Huey explained that there are three levels of control for major incidents – gold, silver and bronze. He explained that one of the first steps in response is to set up the different control levels.

“The gold level is the departmental board, the central disease control and then the third one is local,” he said.

Gold Command, which includes the Permanent Secretary and chief veterinary officer, coordinates the response across Northern Ireland.

Adding to the complexity of the task is the fact that the UK has four chief veterinary officers, who must all make decisions consistent with each other.

Day 1: Suspicions in England

The Permanent Secretary, Agriculture Minister or head of the civil service are notified of suspicions of an outbreak, along with Huey’s equivalent in Dublin.

Ports would be closed for animal movements, with the general import licence for cattle and sheep lifted temporarily.

“The lesions on these cows were at least a week old, so the disease had been in the UK for at least a week. We don’t know where this came from; so, at this point, all of Britain as far as I’m concerned is a risky place,” Huey explained.

He added that an ‘infected area’ would also be declared in Northern Ireland, in case the disease had already made its way to the region.

Industry shock and a total shutdown of abattoirs would follow. A two-day ban on all animals moving in Northern Ireland – except to slaughter – would also be put in place.

Legal and policy guidance would also be sought on the best ways of implementing the decisions.

Meat exports would be stopped and any exports already on the way would be intercepted where possible and returned to the UK.

Days 7 and 8: Foot and Mouth confirmed in Northern Ireland

By day seven of the exercise, Foot and Mouth had been confirmed in Newmills, Co. Tyrone – an area with a 10km radius encompassing one of the largest pork plants in Ireland.

Almost immediately, 3km and 10km zones would be put in place around the infected site.

All animal movements would be locked down within the 10km zone, while all farms within the 3km zone also need to have a vet assess whether there are any clinical signs of disease.

Northern Ireland has unique challenges – smaller farm sizes means the first Northern Ireland 3km radius included 227 farms – compared to just 27 farms around the Shropshire site.

Similarly, Defra had 230 farms in its 10km zone compared to 770 in Northern Ireland.

More contact between farms also increases the risk of infection, making it a challenge to contain disease once it does break out.

antimicrobial action plan

The issue is complicated, as vets cannot rush between farms and need to fully disinfect and change their clothing between each site. Their vehicles also need to be disinfected.

As a result, it’s likely that departmental veterinary staff from the Republic of Ireland would need to join efforts against the disease.

By this stage, Gold Command would also have access to police and fire service staff – as well as those from other Government departments and local authorities – to man 24-hour check points within the 10km zone.

The decision would also have to be made as to whether the major pig processing factory in the zone would be allowed to continue operating.

Major events and carcase disposal

Almost immediately, major decisions will need to be made over public events. In 2001, the North West 200 was cancelled, as was Balmoral Show and even a Belfast Giants’ match. In the event of a new outbreak, it is likely similar action would need to be taken again.

Part of the considerations talked through during the exercise included whether Balmoral could be replaced with a machinery-only show – and whether that show could include horses and poultry.

In the end, the decision was made not to encourage congregations of people with any show.

The disposal of infected animals was also considered. The infected site happened to be nearby to Linergy – but had the nearest rendering site been up in Co. Derry, Huey said this would have still been his preferred option.

The carcases would be transported in a covered lorry with a police escort; only as a last resort, would the remains be burnt on pyres.

The pyres in 2001 created strong and negative images that were seen all around the world, whereas, other methods of disposal are cleaner and more biosecure.

Day 9: Emptying shelves

Three days after the first outbreak in Northern Ireland, two more incidences of the diseases were confirmed around Ballymena, Co. Antrim.

At this point, efforts would be made to start some of the main movements and industries again.

The first movement allowed would be for stock-keepers to take animals to slaughter.

“This would be to avoid welfare issues,” Huey said. “And because we send so much into the GB market, there would be spaces starting to emerge on shop shelves – that will happen very, very quickly.”

A licencing system would need to be established and disinfection points set up to prevent vehicles entering or exiting the abattoir spreading the disease.

Managing staff at this point also begins to become an issue, as several days of long shifts in challenging conditions begins to take its toll.

Milk collections would also recommence at this point, followed by the movement of hay and straw.

Poultry would be one of the first sectors to get back into action. This would likely be followed by the pig sector, before sheep and then cattle – while markets would also be among the last to reopen.