MENTION foot-and-mouth and farmers begin to squirm – but uncomfortable though the thought might be, the UK authorities are now collaborating on a series of 'what if' exercises to practice their response should the disease strike here again.

The Scottish Government is working together with the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Defra, and the Welsh and Northern Irish governments to run a national foot-and-mouth disease simulation exercise called Exercise Blackthorn.

The aim is to exercise the government’s current contingency plans for a national outbreak of FMD, and establish the current state of readiness whilst identifying issues and improvements in policies, plans, instructions, structures and recovery procedures employed in managing an outbreak.

The exercise will simulate a medium to large scale outbreak that has spread from England to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It will include three 'table-top' exercises and a real-time two day live exercise. The first ‘table-top’ exercise took place on Thursday of this week where suspicion of foot-and-mouth disease was simulated.

A further table-top exercise will take place on March 8, followed by the real-time exercise on April 25 and 26. Exercise Blackthorn will end on June 7 in a final table-top exercise where the simulated outbreak will be investigated to the point of disease eradication and recovery aspects considered.

The EU's FMD Directive 2003/85/EC requires member states to exercise their contingency plans twice within a five year period or during “the five years period after the outbreak of a major epizootic disease has been effectively controlled and eradicated”.

Scotland’s chief veterinary officer Sheila Voas said: "It is important to regularly review our plans and identify any issues that may arise when responding to an outbreak of disease.

“A national exercise gives a chance to share good practice with other administrations in the UK, sharing knowledge and agreeing lessons to improve our effectiveness.”

An exercise evaluation report will be published in the autumn.