Larry King on Foot and Mouth and British Tourism

April 2, 2001


You ask whether Britain is closed. The short answer is no. The accurate answer is longer and less clear. Sorry; if you'd lived here a while, you would understand there is no situation the British can't make more complicated than it needs to be.

One thing to make clear is the cause of the problem. You relayed the question to me in a letter from someone who said, ``All reports indicate this early spring 2001 is an excellent time to visit London because the diseased cattle scare has frightened off the usual tourist mob and things can be had cheaper, including hotel rooms.''

Your correspondent -- like a fair number of people outside the U.K., and outside Europe especially -- has conflated the latest sick-animal problem with the previous one. Granted, from a distance the sight of livestock keeling over tends to look the same regardless of whether the beasts have been struck by bubonic plague or a passing case of the fantods, but if you're putting together travel plans it can make a difference.

The previous sick-animal problem was bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is often abbreviated to BSE and even more often referred to as mad-cow disease, because it affects the nervous system of cattle, eventually destroying the brain. That's distressing for the cattle but wouldn't have been terribly important to the rest of us, until the disease leapt the species barrier and made a few people sick with an obscure brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. C-J disease is very nasty -- it more or less eats away the brain, progressively dismantling the victim's thought processes and motor abilities until he mercifully dies. No treatment exists.

The chances of contracting C-J disease are and always were virtually nil. You had to eat beef from an infected cow, which meant a cow slaughtered some time in the 1980s or possibly early 1990s. Even then, it's not the kind of disease that rampages out of control. A total of 91 people are known to have contracted it, 87 in the U.K., three in France, and one in Ireland. The combined population of those three countries is about 119 million, so since 1994, when the first case linked to mad-cow was discovered, approximately 0.00001 percent of the population has been afflicted each year. You get worse odds on a commercial airline.

Those few cases originated before the link between BSE and C-J disease was known, or while the government was strenuously denying any such link existed. Since then, steps have been taken that should eliminate the threat almost entirely. We banned the animal feed that probably carried mad-cow disease and we killed all the cattle that might have been sick, starting in 1996. Once that was done, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, especially the surviving cattle. Then in February sheep started getting sick.

That was the beginning of the latest sick-animal problem, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Foot-and-mouth is in most respects a much more benign disease than mad-cow. People can't catch it, for one thing, and it's seldom fatal or even very annoying to animals. Mainly, they lose weight and their milk dries up, making them unproductive as sources of either meat or dairy products.

But foot-and-mouth affects a wide spectrum of animals -- pigs, sheep, and goats, in addition to cattle -- and it's highly contagious. It can be borne on the wind for distances of several miles. More important, for our purposes, it can be transmitted by contact, so anybody who's walked around on a farm where one animal has it can infect animals on another farm.

That last bit has led the British authorities to take two steps. In combination, they seem to have given much of the world the impression virtually all of Britain is stalked by plague and under strict quarantine, with the fearful citizenry venturing from their hovels only to throw out the dead.

The first step was a cull of animals either diseased or at risk of the disease -- that is, slaughtering them and burning their carcasses. One can only imagine the dismay of a cow who escaped being shot when she might have carried a disease that could kill her or anyone who ate a steak carved from her, only to be struck down just because she'd got too friendly with the sheep in the next field and might catch a bug that would make her feel out of sorts for a couple of weeks.

The second step the authorities took was imposing some limits on movement around the countryside. No part of the country is closed entirely, but you can no longer just hike across the fields at will, and you specifically can't go onto farms where the disease has been diagnosed. How much that affects your travel plans depends on what you wanted to do once you got here.

Anyone who'd hoped to visit the Lake District might as well stay home. The area hardest hit by foot-and-mouth is Cumbria, which includes the lakes and their surrounding mountains. The restrictions on movement are making it hard to walk around the lakes and up and down the mountains. I understand that's what one does there.

Other attractive parts of the countryside -- Devon, for example, and Gloucestershire -- also restrict movement, so for all practical purposes hiking and bicycling there are out of the question. The beaches will be open this summer, although I'd advise anyone thinking of visiting a British beach to just find a nice stretch of gravel road beside a sewage-treatment plant and lie down.

The various castles, cathedrals, and so forth are mostly open, although not necessarily -- Stonehenge, for example, is closed. If you had in mind one particular attraction, it would be best to write or phone beforehand. Several times. Phones at public facilities in Britain for some reason are often manned by idiots who lie. To get an answer to a question, you need to ask several different idiots, then average their answers out.

Our cities are open for business, which is to say you can still come to London. You can also go to Liverpool or York or Birmingham if you've got nothing better to do; I can pretty much guarantee you won't find anything better to do there, either.

As for saving money, a kind of Catch-22 is in effect. Some places are so desperate for business they'd almost certainly give you a great deal on a room or a meal. Unfortunately, they're in places like Cumbria, where you can't do anything once you get there except stare at the lovely scenery, softly lit by a distant glow from the burning carcasses of slaughtered livestock. If anyone in London is cutting anybody a deal on the price of anything, I haven't heard about it. In other words, you can save a lot of money in places you don't want to go and get mercilessly sheared in places you do.

It's not clear how long all this will last. The latest guess seems to be incidence of the disease will peak in June. Whether the restrictions will be eased then is anyone's guess, because the British government is carrying on with the ineptitude that has become traditional in such events.

In fact, its ineptitude apparently helped or at least allowed the disease to spread. A plan to tag animals so they could be traced, in the event of outbreaks just like this, was supposed to have been put in effect in the early 1990s. It wasn't. The government wasted a lot of time just trying to trace sick animals back to their original farm, so it could figure out which other animals were or might be sick.

After a certain point, of course, tracing the animals was irrelevant. They needed to be isolated, immobilized, slaughtered and the corpses -- which remain infectious -- disposed of very rapidly. But the government wasted time trying to trace animals, couldn't seem to make up its mind how or to what extent infected areas needed to be quarantined, and through bad planning and lousy management, seems not to be finding and killing and disposing of infected animals very fast.

Apparently, it's not unusual for days to pass from the time an animal is diagnosed to the time it's killed. Then more days pass before the carcass is burned. Newspapers reported cases where animals -- cattle -- were slaughtered in their stalls. By the time the disposal team showed up, the corpses had swollen so badly they couldn't be pried out of the stalls.

The government resisted calls to use the army for slaughter and disposal, even though an army would seem admirably suited to killing things, and it's got trucks and bulldozers and napalm for hauling away and disposing of the carcasses. The only explanation I heard was that calling out the army would cause panic.

That's the usual British government explanation for not letting anyone know what it's doing or how badly it's doing it. The ruling class will sort this out, don't you know; meantime, we mustn't let the lower orders get over-excited. One knows how upset they become, doesn't one?

By the same token, the preceding government denied for quite some time any link existed between mad cows and C-J disease, even though just such a link was being investigated. A memorable scene occurred in 1990, when the unfortunately-named John Gummer, then the Minister of Agriculture, not only ate a hamburger publicly but more or less force-fed one to his four-year-old daughter, to prove you couldn't possibly make yourself ill eating good British beef. His even-more-unfortunately-named successor, Douglas Hogg, maintained the same stiff-upper-lipped pose of studied ignorance until overwhelming evidence forced the government to retreat.

Our current government has learned a little from its predecessors -- don't appoint a man named Hogg as Minister of Agriculture if you expect anyone to take him seriously, for example -- but not a lot. The party line now seems to be that foot-and-mouth is a very serious crisis the government is heroically grappling with, and it's nothing to be concerned about so please invite all your friends abroad to come visit us. The latter clauses were hurriedly tacked on when someone recalled that tourism contributes approximately seven times as much to the U.K. economy as agriculture.

My impression is that last fact is sinking in, and the inclination from now on will be to err on the side of latitude. Just today -- Wednesday -- Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech to the British Chambers of Commerce pleading with them to get the message out, Britain is open for business. Since the audience consisted of businesspeople, presumably they knew that, and wondered what the hell they were supposed to do about it. But at least some common sense is setting in.

The truth is, if every cloven-hoofed animal in Britain caught foot-and-mouth, we'd be over the whole thing in a month or so, and even the farmers wouldn't be hurt much. A lot more people will suffer for a lot longer if everybody who'd thought about coming here and dropping a few quid on hotel and restaurant bills decides maybe he'd just as soon go to Disney World.

So I would guess by the prime tourist season, May through August, most limits on where you can go and what you can do will be lifted. You'll probably be able to find some bargains here and there on food and board, maybe tourist requirements like rental cars, although I wouldn't count on it. My own plans include Hong Kong in April, France some time in early summer, Spain in early autumn, thereby getting out of town just ahead of whatever tourists show up, and settling back down once they've left.





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