This week marks 20 years since the foot and mouth epidemic that devastated large parts of south Scotland.

It led to more than six million animals being culled nationwide and tourism businesses losing millions of pounds, as the countryside was virtually closed for months. Dumfries and Galloway had 177 cases.

At that time, South Scotland MSP Colin Smyth was working for Russell Brown who was Labour MP for Dumfries.

Discussing his memories of that time, Colin Smyth said: “Foot and mouth had a profound effect on our region, and the impact is still felt today 20 years on.

“It quite literally changed the way the country’s farms work, especially when it comes to tracing and disease control.

“Working in Russell Brown’s Parliamentary office at the time, trying to support local farmers and businesses, consumed every single minute of the day as Dumfries and Galloway really was at the epicentre of the outbreak.

“There were no Zoom calls then, so when Russell was in Westminster, I was attending early morning meetings on his behalf in the emergency bunker the council had set up.

“Most of the time you felt more like a social worker than a Parliamentary Researcher, spending hours just offering devastated constituents a listening ear on the phone late into the night.

“The sheer horror of the time really struck home when we had been asked to meet a small number of farmers in Langholm. I was travelling through the Esk Valley and I turned a corner and all you could see in the darkness of the early evening was field after field with pyres of burning carcasses.

“The smell was nauseating, as was the sheer toll on the lives of so many animals, and the livelihoods of so many local farmers. Decades on, I know those images and the losses of the time still haunts many people who were so badly affected by the outbreak.

“At the time, the UK General Election was expected to take place in May to coincide with English council elections, but we lobbied Number 10 for a delay.

“In April, Tony Blair announced a delay into the summer for both elections, not because there was any problem running the election but because he understood that it was inappropriate for people to go from farmyard to farmyard canvassing with the risk of spreading the disease. He also rightly thought the focus of politicians and Government should be on tackling the pandemic, not asking people for votes.

“He understood that the face to face engagement between the public and voters was an integral part of our democracy and any fair election campaign. It is surprising that in the face of the current pandemic, which has a devastating impact on human lives, that doesn’t seem important and no one is suggesting that the Scottish Parliament election be moved a few weeks to when everyone has been vaccinated, making it far safer.

“We can only hope we don’t live to regret not learning that particular lesson from events 20 years ago.”

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