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‘We were told we were doing it to save the country’

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The rain beat down at the foot of Slieve Foy in the Cooley Peninsula as Matthew McGreehan’s lambs and sheep were taken away on April 5th, 2001.

Distressed ewes gave birth as they were loaded on to trailers to be brought to the abattoir.

“It was traumatic, but we were told we were doing it to save the country,” recalls Mr McGreehan, who lost more than 300 sheep in the cullings ordered to stop the spread foot-and-mouth disease.

The Co Louth peninsula saw the State’s only confirmed case and Mr McGreehan remembers how the area’s usual farm animal soundtrack was replaced by a “strange silence” during those months, interrupted occasionally by the whir of helicopter blades.

Park ranger Brendan Kinsella handing out a notice to people in the Phoenix Park asking them not to enter the park in order to minimise the risk of spreading foot-and-mouth disease to the deer in the park in March 2001.
Park ranger Brendan Kinsella handing out a notice to people in the Phoenix Park asking them not to enter the park in order to minimise the risk of spreading foot-and-mouth disease to the deer in the park in March 2001.

“There was not a sheep or a goat to be seen or heard. The Army helicopters would fly by carrying baskets of wild animals to be shot,” the 48-year-old farmer recalls.

Fear about foot-and-mouth, which causes painful blisters inside the mouth and under the hooves of animals, had grown following the discovery of the first case during a routine inspection in an abattoir in Essex, England, on February 19th.

Within days of Britain’s first reported case, a specialist disease task force was established by the government, meeting daily under chairman and taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The parallels with the ongoing pandemic are striking.

Border checkpoints

St Patrick’s Day parades were called off; Ireland’s Six Nations games were postponed and the Cheltenham horseracing festival was cancelled after a case was found near the Gloucestershire track.

Ports and airports were closely monitored. More than 1,000 soldiers and gardaí manned 141 Border checkpoints. Vehicles and footwear were manually disinfected, meat or milk products were confiscated and live animal imports were blocked.

In a world before social media, daily press briefings were led by the then minister for agriculture, the late Joe Walsh, who was praised for the sense of calm he showed throughout.

Dealing with a long-established and highly-researched animal disease is entirely different to an emerging virus that threatens humans, says Colm Gaynor, a former chief veterinary officer at the Department of Agriculture.

“In the world of animal health, foot-and-mouth is an ever-present risk. We would have had other diseases. We had trained for it and we always had contingency plans,” he says.

Tom Parlon, former president of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), learned of the outbreak while in Brussels. He flew home via Belfast because of a snowstorm in Dublin. By then, Border checkpoints were already in place.

“The lockdown was called very quickly,” he says.

Stormont and Dublin worked closely together, says former SDLP minister for agriculture Bríd Rodgers, who defied instructions from London and imposed an import ban on British animals and animal product imports into the North.

By then, however, a shipment of sheep had already arrived and moved through Armagh into the Republic. Ms Rodgers ordered another ship to turn around mid-sail, which she says was “really crucial”.

Early hopes in Britain that the outbreak had been caused by a rogue batch of infected pigs were quickly dashed. Soon, television images showed huge pyres of carcasses burning, which kept those responding to the outbreak focused.

“We didn’t know where this would go. In the UK they slaughtered over six million animals in the end. So it was a huge risk,” Mr Gaynor says.

Agriculture officials in Dublin and Belfast traced imports back to February 1st.

“It was a huge operation,” Mr Gaynor says. “Every day was a nightmare as we wondered whether we would find the animals, or not.”

Unlike Britain, which was trying to chase an already-seeded virus, the Irish authorities were “already on the pitch” by the time the first case was found on a farm in Meigh, Co Armagh, just across the Border on February 28th.

A 10km exclusion zone was quickly established. From there, the majority of the seemingly-native sheep had been transported unlawfully into the State for slaughter, it emerged. A year later, a Wicklow-born livestock dealer was convicted.

Foot-and-mouth was confirmed in the State on March 22nd, when blood samples taken from sheep on the farm of Michael Rice in Proleek on the Cooley Peninsula, just 8km south of Meigh, proved positive.

Liam and Irene Woods, at their home on the Cooley Peninsula, Co Louth. Liam (80) recalls the “eerie silence” around his farm in Castletowncooley in late March 2001 when hundreds of sheep were sent for slaughter. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Liam and Irene Woods, at their home on the Cooley Peninsula, Co Louth. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Liam Woods (80) recalls the “eerie silence” around his farm in Castletowncooley in late March when hundreds of sheep were sent for slaughter. They were not infected but were inside the exclusion zone.

His and other animals owned by affected Cooley farmers were sent to a disused abattoir owned by meat processor Larry Goodman. In all, the area lost 48,744 sheep, 1,123 cattle, 2,908 pigs, 280 deer and 166 goats.

“There wasn’t an animal about the place,” Mr Woods says. “If you go out today the crows are going ballistic at this time of the day. Back then, it was dead silent.”

Raymond O’Malley, then chairman of Co Louth IFA, remembers the emotions as lambing ewes were taken away.

“When you see grown men of 50 or 60 with tears streaming down their faces, that is something that never leaves you,” he says.

Illegal trade

Commending the Border security put in place, the Ardee farmer says “many of us wish we could do that now with the Covid”, but he concedes that it was “probably easier” to seal off the peninsula then than a 500km border today.

Even before the phrase was coined, the Department of Agriculture had contact tracers following sheep that had entered or left the State, “both legally and illegally”, and not just in Cooley, says Mr Gaynor.

Minister for Agriculture Joe Walsh in March 2001: he was praised for the sense of calm he showed during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.
Minister for Agriculture Joe Walsh in March 2001: he was praised for the sense of calm he showed during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

The illegal trade was part of a VAT fraud, where sheep brought in were presented as being from the State. It was, he adds, a “serious risk” and huge resources went into finding them.

Ireland had to prove to the world that it was free of foot-and-mouth. Samples were taken from more than 150,000 sheep from every county from May to July. Every test was negative bar one, and that was inconclusive. That sheep, nevertheless, was slaughtered.

On September 19th, the OIE-World Organisation for Animal Health restored Ireland’s status as a country free from foot-and-mouth. Maintaining public support for months of restrictions was crucial, according to Martin Heraghty, a former adviser to Joe Walsh.

“At the time those months did feel like a very long time . . . No more than now there were various restrictions being placed on people and we needed people to co-operate. Equally, we wanted to maintain public confidence,” Mr Heraghty says.

Clear communication was key. So, too, was an alert system that drew “live” information from veterinary offices across the State, while a 24/7 helpline heard the public’s concerns.

Horseboxes are sprayed on arrival at Leopardstown Racecourse where racing took place on April 15, 2001, after a seven-week break because of foot-and-mouth disease. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Horseboxes are sprayed on arrival at Leopardstown Racecourse where racing took place on April 15, 2001, after a seven-week break because of foot-and-mouth disease. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

“It was important we were fully up to speed. There was a lot happening rapidly . . . We didn’t want to have a press briefing where somebody raised something happening around the country that you weren’t aware of,” Mr Heraghty says.

Remembering the goodwill shown by cross-Border travellers, retired garda Michael Clarke, then stationed at Carrigans on Derry/Donegal border, says people were “very understanding and actually appreciative of the fact we were there”.

“We got to be on first-name terms with a lot of the farmers. At night they would be over and back to check on their livestock. We were just welcomed so much by the people there,” he adds.

Ms Rodgers remembers a Stormont of a different age, where the SDLP and David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party had a “vested interest” in making sure power-sharing worked because they had led the Belfast Agreement negotiations.

“Nationalist and unionist ministers worked together to the common good of everyone on the island, particularly farmers. There was never a time when anyone from the unionist side of the executive objected to what I was doing.”

Following the crisis, Walsh was honoured by the French with the Legion d’Honneur and by the Spanish with the Grand Cross of the Agricultural Order of Merit for his leadership during a dark hour. Marking his retirement as minister in 2004, Mr Ahern said the crisis had been Walsh’s “finest hour”.

The public backed tough action because the government “decided quickly and implemented quickly,” says Mr Parlon. Walsh never “lost the dressing room”, though the former IFA chief concedes that the restrictions then were a pale shadow of the ones needed today.

‘Sad time’

The costs in 2001 did not compare either. The exchequer funded €107 million of measures to prevent outbreaks, while the tourism sector suffered an estimated loss of €210 million during the first half of the year.

Later, many farmers, bar those who lost their herds, saw short-term price rises for animals because of a shortage of stock in Britain.

Mr Woods and his wife Irene never returned to shepherding, instead opting for suckler farming. Today, he prefers not to dwell too deeply on the past.

“It happened. We got on with our lives,” he says, adding that sucklers are easier to manage than sheep.

“It was a sad time but there were a lot of positives as a result as well,” he says.

“Some people became better friends but some people haven’t spoken to one another since. It brought out the worst in people and it brought out the best. We have had much worse times since then.”

However, Mr McGreehan says it took years for his new flock to get used to the Cooley’s hilly commonages.

“The compensation was very unfair: £145 per sheep. It definitely wasn’t enough,” he says. “My sheep hadn’t got foot-and-mouth. My neighbour’s sheep hadn’t got foot-and-mouth. We were asked to give them up for the greater good.”



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Nphet proposes cap on households mixing over Christmas period

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The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has recommended that no more than four households should mix over the Christmas period.

Nphet met on Thursday to consider advice for the Government on the latest pandemic situation, at a time when Covid-19 case numbers have stabilised at a high level and further information on the Omicron variant is being awaited.

It last night sent a letter to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly which recommends a maximum of six people at a table in bars and restaurants, the closure of nightclubs and limits on households mixing.

The contents of the letter are expected to be discussed by Ministers and senior officials at a Cabinet sub-committee meeting on Friday.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the Government would move “as quickly as it can” to examine the latest recommendations from Nphet and to decide if further restrictions will be introduced. She said the Cabinet would need to be given time to “look at this advice and take it on board”.

During an interview on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Ms McEntee said the Government had to ensure it was clear about about what it would do in terms of restrictions and why before anything was announced.

“Of course if there are impacts on businesses at any stage of this…I hope people would agree that we haven’t left people wanting,” she said. “We have always responded where business has needed additional income. Where individuals have lost their jobs. We have always provided that support. This won’t be any different.”

Tests for travellers

Separately, the Government has notified airlines that the introduction of a system of PCR and antigen testing for passengers arriving into Ireland has been delayed by 48 hours.





Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU


545


117

The measure was due to come into force on Friday, but Aer Lingus said airlines had been informed on Thursday night that the regulations would now begin on Sunday. All arrivals into the State – whether vaccinated or not – will need a negative Covid-19 test result from then onwards.

Those travelling with an antigen test result will need to have obtained it within 48 hours of arrival into Ireland, and it will have to be a professionally administered test.

No self-administered tests will be accepted under rules approved by Cabinet. Those with a PCR test result will have a longer pre-travel window of 72 hours before arrival. Persons arriving into the State from overseas who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19 will be required also to have a certified negative test.

Hospitality sector meeting

Meanwhile, Government members are due to meet representatives of the hospitality industry on Friday. Ministers have said there will be supports for the sector if new pandemic measures will impact on their ability to trade.

Ms McEntee said she was particularly conscious that people had been asked to pull back and to reduce their social contacts.

“I am talking to businesses particularly in the hospitality sector and I know the impact that is having on them. This should be their busiest time and it’s not. We are taking this on board. We are going to support all of these businesses as we have always done during the pandemic,” she said.

The Minister dismissed suggestions that the Government was flip flopping or that there was confusion behind the scenes, saying the State is in a “fluid situation” because of the nature of Covid-19.

“What we have seen with the antigen test is that the market has corrected itself. That wasn’t a matter of flip flops or changing. We simply saw the market adjust itself. It is not about Government changing direction. We have to change direction sometimes because of the nature of this pandemic. Everybody is doing their best here,” she said.

‘Random and arbitrary’

Earlier, Maynooth University professor of immunology Paul Moynagh said the latest restrictions reportedly proposed by Nphet could lead to some benefits but seem ed “random and arbitrary”.

He told Newstalk Breakfast that “big mistakes” have been made with regard to messaging to the public.

“Back in September contact tracing was stood down the reason being that children were missing too much school. But we had the option of keeping contact tracing and using antigen testing. And there has been a resistance over the last year from Nphet in terms of using antigen testing,” he said.

“We saw over the last number of days the reluctance of Nphet again to impress advice from experts in the area of ventilation and air filtration. There seems to be this reluctance to accept scientific advice from outside.”

Prof Moynagh said there was a need to look at this reluctance and “learn from our mistakes”.

“Whereas at the moment it seems that mistakes are made and that narrative is defended. And again we end up now with new restrictions that I am not convinced are going to be very impactful,” he said.

“We know they are going to be highly impactful in terms of the sectors for example. I am not convinced by the strategy that is being used at the moment.”


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Senior figures in Washington stand behind Belfast Agreement and protocol, McDonald says

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Senior figures in United States politics have made it clear that the government of Boris Johnson in the UK will face negative consequences internationally if it attempts to rupture or dispense with the Northern Ireland protocol, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said.

In a presentation at the National Press Club in Washington DC on Thursday she said the protocol was “necessary, operable and going nowhere, despite what Boris Johnson might wish to believe”.

She said she had met with “people of considerable influence” in the US Congress and in the Biden administration on her visit to the US this week and they all stood four square behind the Belfast Agreement and the protocol.

“I heard yesterday on the Hill the clearest possible articulation across the board that any notion of walking away from the protocol would not be acceptable to the United States.”

Asked about a report in the Financial Timed that Washington had delayed lifting tariffs on UK steel and aluminium products amid concerns about threats by the UK to invoke article 16 of the protocol, Ms McDonald said this was a matter for the Biden administration.

However, she said: “There is no doubt where the US stands. If Johnson believes he can walk away from the protocol, he is wrong and there will be consequences for Britain if he chooses that course of action.”

Tariffs

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie, who was also in Washington DC on Thursday, said if the lifting of tariffs was being delayed due to concerns about the protocol, he would argue at a meeting with the US state department that it had “got it wrong” in its view on what article 16 was about.

“If people say we have to adhere to the protocol and article 16 is part of the protocol then it becomes a legitimate thing you can use.”

“It is not about whether you should or should not use it. It is about how you should use it.

“You should use it in a narrow sense of a particular issue that is causing economic or societal harm in Northern Ireland, for example, medicines .”

“If the medicine issue has not been fixed and is starting to affect the people of Northern Ireland, it would be right to instigate article 16 to focus minds on that issue.”

Ms McDonald also told the press club event that she expected the United States would “be on the right side” on the controversy over British plans for an amnesty in relation to killings during the Troubles.

She said the British government was going to the ultimate point to keep the truth from the people about its war in Ireland.

She said the Johnson government’s plans would mean “in effect no possibility of criminal action, civil actions or even inquests into killings in the past”.

Ms McDonald also forecast that a point was coming over the coming five or 10 years where referenda would be held on the reunification of Ireland. She urged the Irish government to establish a citizen’s assembly to consider preparation for unity.

She also said “there will be need for international support and international intervention to support Ireland as we move to transition from partition to reunification”.

Separately, asked about a recent Sinn Féin golf fundraising event that was held in New York, Ms McDonald said the money that was raised would be spent on campaigning and lobbying in the US.

She described it as a patriotic expression by people in the US who had a deep interest in Ireland and the peace process.

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Drop in cancer diagnoses as high as 14 per cent during pandemic, early data shows

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The drop in the number of cancers detected during the Covid-19 pandemic could be as high as 14 per cent, preliminary data has suggested.

A report from the National Cancer Registry said it was still too early to provide “definitive answers” on whether pandemic hospital restrictions last year led to a reduction in the number of cancers diagnosed.

The registry’s annual report said an estimated decrease of 14 per cent in detections pointed to the “potential scale” of Covid-19’s impact on other healthcare.

A separate analysis of data on microscopically verified cancers diagnosed last year showed a reduction of between 10 and 13 per cent, the report said.

The drop in confirmed cancer cases, when compared with previous years, could be partly accounted for by “incomplete registration of cases already diagnosed”, it said.

Prof Deirdre Murray, director of the National Cancer Registry, said there were “clear signals that, as expected in Ireland, the number of cancer diagnoses in 2020 will be lower than in previous years”.

‘Very worried’

Averil Power, chief executive of the Irish Cancer Society, said the organisation was “very worried” over the significant drop in cancers diagnosed last year.

The shortfall in cancers being diagnosed would present a “major challenge” in the coming years, with lengthy waiting lists and disruptions to screening services “all too commonplace” already, she said.

Ms Power said it was frightening to think of the people who were living with cancer but did not know it yet. She added that existing cancer patients were “terrified” of having treatments delayed due to the recent rise in Covid-19 cases.

The registry’s report said there were about 44,000 tumours identified each year between 2017 and 2019.

Not counting non-melanoma skin cancer, the most common cancer diagnoses were for breast and prostate cancer, which made up almost a third of invasive cancers found in women and men respectively.

For men this was followed by bowel and lung cancer, and melanoma of the skin. Lung cancer was the second most common cancer for women, followed by colorectal cancer and melanoma of skin.

Nearly a third of deaths in 2018 were attributed to cancer, with lung cancer the leading cause of death from cancer, the report said.

The second, third and fourth most common cancers to die from in men were bowel, prostate and oesophagus cancer. For women breast, bowel and ovarian cancers were the most common fatal cancers.

The report said there were almost 200,000 cancer survivors in Ireland at the end of 2019, with breast cancer patients making up more than a fifth of the total.

Mortality rates

The research found cancer rates among men had dropped between 2010 and 2019, with mortality rates decreasing or remaining the same across nearly every type of cancer. Rates of cancer detected among women had increased between 2008 and 2019, with mortality rates for most cancers decreasing.

The report said the five-year survival rate from cancer had increased to 65 per cent for the period 2014 to 2018, compared with 42 per cent two decades previous.

There had been “major improvement” in survival rates for most major cancers, however, the research noted the chances of survival varied significantly depending on the type of cancer.

Prostate, melanoma of the skin and testis cancer had survival rates of more than 90 per cent, followed closely by breast and thyroid cancer, and Hodgkin lymphoma. Pancreas, liver, oesophagus and lung cancers had much lower five-year survival rates on average, the report said.

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