The BSE Scare

The British population was in the 1990s involved in a real time experiment to see the extent to which BSE ('mad cow disease') had been transmitted to humans and so caused vCJD. (CJD is a rare disease which was identified many years ago. New variant CJD (vCJD) is relatively recent variant, clearly linked to the consumption of BSE-infected beef.)

There were interesting lessons to be learned concerning the interpretation of statistics, and concerning the way in which the crisis was handled by the government machine. The science/statistics issue is considered in a separate note. This web page summarises and comments on the Phillips report on the Government's handling of the BSE crisis which was published in October 2000.

See also a separate note which gives advice to officials on the preparation of advice to Ministers on risks to health and safety.

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 Government'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. As long as other characteristics remain the same, it seemed all to likely that the organisation would remain in its original risk-averse and uncommunicative shape.


Whilst one must applaud the fair-minded approach displayed 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 wholesale publication of policy advice would greatly inhibit the freedom 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 cattle in the 1970s. This means that scrapie did not cross any species barrier from sheep. The new disease was therefore not derived from scrapie and, unlike scrapie, it was able to cross the species barrier into man and so cause new variant CJD.


Martin Stanley