Officials rapped for BSE failures

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Inquiry rules the dissection danger to pupils was ignored for too long. Sarah Cassidy on the continuing controversy over mad cow disease.

TWO education civil servants have been criticised by the official inquiry into the BSE disaster for their delay in warning schools of the potential dangers of using cows' eyeballs in science lessons.

The report criticised Ron Jacobs and Barney Baker of the then Department of Education and Science for taking two-and-a-half years to pass the message on to schools.

In June 1990, the Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee advised that the eyes of cattle aged more than six months should not be used. But it was not until December 1992 that schools were informed after confusion at the DES. The advice is still in force.

At the time, the Office for Standards in Education estimated that between 30 and 50 per cent of secondaries used eyeballs for dissections - usually cattle eyes.

There was concern that pupils or teachers could cut themselves during dissections and be exposed to BSE. Since the eye is closely associated with the brain, dissection was highlighted as a possible pathway for transmitting the disease as early as 1988.

The report concluded: "There was no basic disagreement among officials. What went wrong was that the relatively simple task of agreeing the text of a brief warning note turned into a two-year saga."

In his evidence to the inquiry, Mr Baker, a division head who retired in 1994, accepted the "major share of responsibility for the delay".

He had already been reprimanded and cautioned in 1992 after an internal investigation concluded that he "had made significant errors in judgment" in not bringing the issue to ministers' attention and for making judgments on issues that should have been left to ministers.

Mr Baker told the inquiry: "With hindsight, it is clear that te issue of advice to schools should have been regarded as urgent and given a high priority. The advice we had been given was that infection ... in the course of dissecting bovine eyeballs was a remote theoretical risk.

"I recognise that we were not competent to make our own judgment on these matters and should never have been trying to do so. I never believed in any real risk to pupils and saw the issue of advice to schools as an ultra-precautionary measure."

His junior colleague Ron Jacobs, now a senior official at the Department for Education and Employment responsible for technology colleges, had day-to-day responsibility for preparing the guidance. He told the inquiry that with hindsight he wished he had produced it more quickly but that he had given greater priority to his work on revising the national curriculum.

The inquiry report did not criticise any government departments for failing to take action in 1988 or 1989 when the dissection issue was first raised, concluding that at this time the risk was not considered so great.

The inquiry team contrasted the English experience with the support given by Scottish officials who issued guidance to schools in just over a month.

When the advice was eventually issued on December 1992 it said:

"There is no evidence that bovine spongiform encephalopathy can be transmitted to humans. Nevertheless, in view of the significant nervous tissue component of the eye from the optic nerve, the expert opinion is that there is a remote theoretical risk from the dissection of bovine eyeballs which is best avoided, particularly since the alternative of using anatomical models is available ...

"Nobody who has been in contact with this kind of material in the past has any reason to feel concerned. This advice is in line with that being offered in many other areas as an ultra-precautionary measure."

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