While Brexit has exposed the organisation as anything but impartial, its arrogance and incompetence was never more obvious than in its handling of the BSE crisis more than 20 years ago. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as ‘mad cow disease’, is a neurodegenerative disease of cattle. That was bad enough for the farmers but what was ignored for far too long in government was its potential to jump the species barrier, which it did. Humans who had eaten contaminated meat were diagnosed with a variant of the disease known as vCJD which was invariably fatal.
The report of an inquiry by Lord Phillips was published in 2000. It ran to more than 5,000 pages. In a review of the report, Professor Hugh Pennington, an expert in infectious diseases, said that against a background of years of reorganisations and funding cuts to Government-funded science institutes, ‘the driving force was the Treasury. Its dark presence lurks throughout the whole BSE saga as insidiously as the agent of the disease itself’. During Brexit, Treasury arrogance was such that it didn’t even have a dark presence; it was openly publishing doom-laden reports and not seeming to care that they were being called out.
Professor Pennington went on to say – and believe me this is worth quoting in full – ‘the evidence given to the [Phillips] Inquiry and the description of events in his report are a harsh indictment of the civil service. Gifted amateurs with non-science first-class Oxbridge degrees may be able to write brilliant position papers proving that black is white, but they should not be occupying the heart of government. Scientific literacy was in such short supply at top levels during the BSE crisis that at crucial moments policy-making was handed over to scientists. This abdication of responsibility by the executive should never happen again. The Government’s need for scientific advice is bound to increase, but those who hold senior positions in the executive must understand how to use it properly. If polymaths get on to the Whitehall fast track, this Inquiry may have been worth it.’
Essentially Dominic Cummings is having to repeat that last sentence 19 years on. What an indictment.