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'I'm acutely aware of the danger': When Ireland entered crisis mode for Foot and Mouth disease in 2001

19 years ago it was livestock and farmers’ livelihoods at stake.

THE REPUBLIC OF Ireland now has its first confirmed case of Covid-19. 

Before the first case was confirmed last night, the country had already seen international rugby games cancelled, other mass gatherings such as St Patrick’s Day parades plunged into doubt and fears raised over travel restrictions.

The Six Nations match against Italy being called off certainly invoked memories of 2001, when the country was in the midst of the Foot and Mouth Crisis.

While it was livestock and farmers’ livelihoods at stake 19 years ago, it is human lives that are at risk now due to the outbreak of Covid-19.

foot-and-mouth-disease-crisis-farming Outside Meigh in Co Armagh a sign warns the public that the area is infected with Foot and Mouth disease Source: Joe Dunne/Rollingnews.ie

With hundreds of cases confirmed around Europe, the focus from authorities here is now on containing and mitigating the risk.

Back in 2001, that was no easy task.

Foot and Mouth

Foot and Mouth disease is one which affects livestock such as cows and sheep, and is incredibly infectious. 

When the first case of the outbreak was confirmed in Essex in the UK on 19 February 2001, it set the Irish government on alert immediately, as mass infections here would have posed a serious risk to the agriculture industry. 

Minister of State for Agriculture Noel Davern told the Dáil two days later: “I am acutely aware of the potential danger to Irish agriculture posed by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Great Britain.

An outbreak here would have enormous economic consequences. This country has been free of the disease since 1941.

Swift action followed with gardaí setting up checkpoints at every road leading into the North, as outbreaks spread throughout the UK with one case confirmed in Armagh.

foot-and-mouth-crisis-disease-checking-cars Gardai monitor traffic entering the three kilometre exclusion zone at a checkpoint on the Carlingford Road in Co Louth. Source: Joe Dunne/Rollingnews.ie

A series of stringent measures were put in place across the country in spring of that year as the disease plunged the agricultural industry into crisis mode.

The efforts to prevent the disease reaching Ireland didn’t stop it being discovered at a farm in Louth in March.

A precautionary cull of livestock in the area was announced.

Drastic measures

The main man credited with providing the leadership and decision-making needed during the crisis was Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh.

Under his watch, a series of drastic measures were introduced to try to keep the disease from spreading.

foot-and-mouth-crisis-disease-farming-animals-trucks Farmers and officials from the Department of Agriculture load sheep on to a lorry in Ravensdale, Co Louth. Source: Joe Dunne/Rollingnews.ie

The government banned horse and greyhound racing indefinitely. 

It also called on race fans and trainers to stay away from the Cheltenham Festival – which was ultimately cancelled anyway. 

To put that into perspective, the Department of Health’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan was asked this week if he’d advise people to avoid attending mass gatherings abroad, like Cheltenham. He said: “No.”

Back in 2001, Walsh’s control measures included the halting of the movement of animals with football games and other sporting events also cancelled in a bid to stop people travelling.

This included the 2001 Six Nations. Ireland had been on a bit of a roll before the games were called off, and the re-scheduled games in the autumn yielded a loss to the Scots (albeit a win against England also). 

Dublin Zoo and Fota Island were also closed as a precautionary measure. Even politicians couldn’t escape the movement restrictions on animals and citizens. Fine Gael’s Ard Fheis was cancelled, and replaced with a smaller-scale ‘Dublin Conference’.

The restrictions remained in place for months — and we all became used to the sight of buckets of disinfectant outside schools, offices and other public buildings.

Fears of a continent-wide epidemic receded as the weeks stretched into months.

Following the expiry of the incubation period of 30 days from the only case of the disease in the Republic, the EU declared the country free of Foot & Mouth on 19 April.

Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day Parade – which had been cancelled – was rescheduled for May.

For his part in helping to limit the spread of the disease, Walsh was honoured with awards such as the Légion d’honneur in France. 

foot-and-mouth-crisis-checking-cars Minister for Agriculture Joe Walsh Source: Joe Dunne/Rollingnews.ie

When Walsh died in 2014, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he’d been “instrumental in mitigating a disaster that had the potential to wipe out a way of life”. 

- With reporting from Daragh Brophy

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Sean Murray

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