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The BSE Inquiry

The Phillips report on the Government's handling of the BSE crisis was published on 26 October 2000. Its key conclusions are summarised below, together with a brief commentary.

See also a separate note which gives advice to officials on the preparation of advice to Ministers on risks to health and safety. And if you think it was ever easy to forecast the future number of cases of vCJD, you might like to try to look this note on vCJD statistics.

Phillips' Conclusions

The Inquiry's key conclusions that affect the civil service are:

In short, the Government was well intentioned but far too secretive. Greater and earlier openness might have caused problems, not least for the farming industry, but the long term consequences would probably have been been less damaging.

The report's introductory comments on the performance of individual civil servants are worth repeating in full:

Interim Response

The Govermment's interim response to the report seemed to accept all its key conclusions and recommendations. Its weakness, which to some extent it shares with the wider Modernising Government Initiative, appeared to be that it promised change in some but not all of the principal characteristics of the organisation that is the modern UK government - see achieving change within the leadership chapter of How to be a Civil Servant. As long as other characterisitics remain the same, it seemed all to likley that the organisation would remain in its original risk-averse and uncommunicative shape.


Whilst one must applaud the fair-minded approach dislayed in Phillips' comments, and the sensible nature of the Government's interim response, it will nevertheless remain difficult truly to change Whitehall's current culture. Indeed, there must now be a real danger that senior officials will, with some relief, mentally file away the BSE report and fail to learn and act on the wise advice that it contains.

It is also worth noting that the inquiry team, like the earlier Scott Inquiry into "Arms to Iraq" felt it right to comment on the work and performance of individual civil servants. I think that this was inevitable and right, but it is a small breach of the principle that officials advice to Ministers is private. I suspect that this breach could in fact be made a little larger without greatly damaging the relationship between officials and Ministers, and maybe there should be more frequent inquiries into the effectiveness of civil servants' handling of major issues. But I believe that the wholescale publication of policy advice would greatly inhibit the freeedom of Ministers. I know that some think that this would be a good thing, but I instinctively doubt it, and fear for the power that would inevitably be handed to officials as a result of such openness.

Finally, the scientific conclusions are also interesting. Scientists originally thought that BSE was probably transmitted to cattle from sheep with scrapie (e.g. in recycled animal protein used in cattle feed). And this led some scientists to suggest that it was therefore possible that the disease could also cross the further species barrier into man, whilst others pointed out that scrapie had never crossed from sheep to man, so it was unlikely that BSE would do so.

However, the inquiry concluded that the disease probably originated as a gene mutation in the 1970s. This means that scapie did not cross any species barrier. However, paradoxically, the new disease was not derived from scrapie and it was able to cross the species barrier in man and so cause new variant CJD.


Martin Stanley
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