McVey doesn’t write Christmas cards. Since the death of her daughter Claire, aged just 15 almost two decades ago the festive season has served as a painful reminder of her loss.
Instead, every year as it approaches, Annie sits at her computer and taps out letters. Occasionally the list of recipients’ changes, but for the most part it remains the same. John Gummer, for instance, Agriculture Minister in John Major’s cabinet, now serving in the House of Lords as Lord Deben, is ever present. The content varies little. ‘I email a picture of Claire, just a reminder that at this holiday time when you are sitting down to your Christmas lunch we are not because of the decisions you made and I hope any further decisions you make are with that in mind,’ says Annie, a a former nurse who now works within the Ministry of Justice.
‘Decisions have consequences,’ she adds.
For as far as Annie, now a 61-year-old grandmother, is concerned, the Government’s poor decisions and failure to act on evidence that a deadly disease in cattle could pose a risk to human health stole her bright, happy and independent daughter’s future.
When she died in January 2000 — just six months after being taken ill — Claire McVey was the youngest recorded victim of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD, an incurable degenerative brain condition caught by eating beef from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as mad cow disease.
It remains Britain’s biggest ever food scandal and fears remain that a second wave is on the horizon — with devastating consequences….Claire never got the chance to forge a career, plan her wedding or have children. Instead the girl who her mum laughingly states would have been a ‘bridezilla’, given the chance, planned her own funeral.
‘She wanted the whole sleeping beauty thing, centre of attention and why shouldn’t she?’ asks Annie, her voice cracking.’
‘She wasn’t going to have a wedding, so that was her day. It was glass coffin, lying on rose petals, flowers in her hair, the whole caboodle. It was heartbreaking.’
Annie’s agony is shared by the 177 other families who lost loved ones to this incurable disease. The last of those deaths was in 2016. But time seems to have faded our memories of a debacle that cast its shadow over the dinner table for much of the 80s and 90s. Memories of news footage of cattle stumbling to their knees under the influence of a deadly new neurological condition — followed later by painful clips of human victims displaying similar symptoms.
But there is no danger of the crisis being forgotten. Even now anyone who lived in Britain for more than six months between 1980 and 1996 is banned from giving blood in most parts of the world because of the risk associated with blood-borne transmission of vCJD.