Biosecurity agency cut by Labour experiences 1000 per cent increase in workload

The Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service has experienced over 4000 calls in the last six months about the chalara outbreak.

The Tree Health Diagnostic and Advisory Service (THDAS), a sub-section of the Forestry Commission which was defunded by the last Government, has experienced over five years worth of enquiries in the last six months due to public fear over the chalara disease, which causes dieback of ash trees.

In a normal year, the service receives a combined total of 750 enquires. But in autumn 2012, the UK saw multiple cases of chalara, a serious disease of ash trees which is caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea. According to Forest Research, the disease "causes leaf loss and crown dieback in affected trees, and usually leads to tree death in younger trees"; as a result, "it is being treated as a quarantine pest under national emergency measures", and Forest Research is asking that suspected cases be reported.

Since then, THDAS has received over 4000 enquiries from England and Wales alone (as well as approximately 200 from Scotland), a workload ten times higher than normal.

That massively increased workload comes as the service struggles with budget cuts introduced in the years leading up to the 2010 election.

Las Autumn, the Times' Oliver Moody reported on the numerous cuts made to biosecurity programmes run by the Forestry Commission:

  • In 2010 Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary at the time, signed off a strategy paper making biosecurity the Forestry Commission’s least-funded field of research, with an annual budget of less than £1.2 million;
  • David Miliband presided over a 20 per cent cut in biosecurity funding in 2007 alone;
  • In the last financial year for which figures are available, 2010-11, just £50,000 was spent on Forestry Commission research into invasive diseases. This was in spite of a £130,000 external grant for the work;
  • Between 2004 and 2010 the “monitoring and biosecurity” budget was cut by almost 60 per cent in real terms.

Those cuts came despite warnings from Scandinavian scientists in 2007 that chalara outbreaks had been reported, and could spread to the UK. Roddie Burgess, then head of plant health at the Forestry Commission, told Moody that he had sent a pest alert to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that year, but still the cuts came. As THDAS attempts to cope with its 1000 per cent increase in calls, that is starting to look like a false economy.

Discoloured leaves hang on an infected ash tree in near Ipswich, United Kingdom. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear