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Short-lived shutdown for foot and mouth came with social and economic cost

Margaret Donnelly


Policy: Thousands of animals were culled in Ireland in 2001 in an attempt to stop the spread of foot and mouth. Photo: REUTERS/Paul McErlane

Policy: Thousands of animals were culled in Ireland in 2001 in an attempt to stop the spread of foot and mouth. Photo: REUTERS/Paul McErlane

Policy: Thousands of animals were culled in Ireland in 2001 in an attempt to stop the spread of foot and mouth. Photo: REUTERS/Paul McErlane

On March 1, 2001, the front page of the Irish Independent screamed 'The plague is here' as the first case of foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed on the island of Ireland.

Sheep slaughtered in Armagh had tested positive for a disease that posed no threat to human health, but the value of Irish agriculture and its exports was at stake.

Coronavirus is another matter and the cancellation of a Six Nations rugby match in Dublin could be just the start of much wider restrictions as it seems inevitable that Ireland will, sooner rather than later, succumb to its first case and face implementing a state of lockdown greater than we experienced in 2001.

Back then the country held its breath as we watched the spread of the disease in Britain. But, despite precautions and stringent controls being put in place by the Department of Agriculture and the government, including a ban on farm animal imports from Northern Ireland and Britain, with additional security forces assigned to police the Border to ensure compliance, we could not evade it.

Cheltenham was cancelled as Britain struggled to contain the spread of the disease and when it finally arrived in Northern Ireland, further measures were put in place here to contain its spread, including the postponement of St Patrick's Day parades and various sporting fixtures.

On March 22, the then agriculture minister Joe Walsh made the announcement live from the Dáil of the positive case in Co Louth.

'Operation Ringfence' was established to contain the spread. Public playgrounds, football pitches and parks were off-limits and forests and were closed to be public. At one point there was even a discussion about whether or not Mass should be banned.

That was the Republic's only positive case, but containing its spread came at a cost.

Three of Ireland's Six Nations games were postponed in February and March. The final game of the tournament wasn't actually played until October 20 when then Ireland captain Keith Wood scored a try to stop England winning a grand slam.

An aggressive slaughter policy was introduced which saw the cull of 13,000 sheep and 3,000 cows within an exclusion zone in Co Louth.

Troops were posted to Dublin Port and severe travel restrictions were put in place around the source of the outbreak, while disinfection mats were in place at every conceivable entrance in the country.

By April, when the outbreak was considered over for Ireland, thousands of animals had been culled and trade restrictions in the country around Louth were lifted.

However, the restrictions put in place for a relatively short period of time had an economic and social impact.

The impact at local level, in Louth, was severe but thanks to stringent control measures, the wider agri-food economy was not severely hit, given the fears and potential damage the disease could have caused.

But, while Ireland was officially clear of the disease in May, the National Ploughing Championships was called off in September, due to continued positive cases in the UK and the threat posed by attracting visitors from the UK to an agriculture event here.

Agriculture wasn't the only sector hit hard. Tourism suffered with a huge fall-off in international visitor number who were put off travelling by the negative publicity.

However, it wasn't all bad. Due to the greater impact on agriculture in the UK, Ireland experienced increased export volumes to the UK.

The British and Irish governments initially discouraged people from travelling between the two countries which had a significant impact on tourism, while the cancellation of sporting and cultural events hit every parish.

For a relatively short-lived crisis in one sector, that didn't directly threaten human health, the economic and social costs were significant, but don't go anywhere near the impact a shutdown to save human lives could cost.

Irish Independent