Defra guile shows a lesson learned

Sometimes you need another crisis to lay the ghost of the last one. That’s not to say Defra will have welcomed the arrival of bird flu to these shores, but via a campaign of calm reassurance and confident commentary, the department appears finally to have seen off the legacy of foot and mouth.

As one dead swan sent the press into a frenzy, stakeholders were consulted and involved, websites rolled out, briefings held, and special public advice lines set up.

It all seems so different from the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Then, the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food seemed hapless – as disease swept the country, its containment plans failed and communication was dire.

But actually it wasn't quite like that. Just as the outbreak started, the political temperature was rising. We were a few weeks from an unannounced but inevitable general election.

Number 10 made its views clear. Nothing was to affect the forthcoming campaign. Maff had to contain the problem on its own.
To begin with, its information strategy worked effectively. Its website was updated by the minute. Daily briefings kept specialist correspondents well informed and sympathetic.

But then the Government fell victim to its own efficiency. At PM's questions, an opposition MP wrongfooted Mr Blair with figures ahead of those in his brief, gleaned from the website.

Number 10 blew a fuse. Why did we need all these briefings? Why couldn't this website be updated just once a day? For a few critical days the information flow faltered. Eventually, sanity prevailed, but not before Maff had suffered a ruinous blow to its credibility.

Defra seems to have the press and public on board – let's hope this time it has more success with the fractious community of Whitehall.

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