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"In Britain, the emergency response centre at Dumfries is hard at work"
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NFU President Ben Gill
"I am very keen to have a proper debate on the whole basis of the way we provide food for the public"
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NFU south west regional Director, Anthony Gibson
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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 15:50 GMT
Foot-and-mouth 'cover up' denied
Cattle on a pyre in the village of Ellonby, Cumbria
Carcasses continue to be piled up for burning
Agriculture Minister Nick Brown has denied reports that his department knew that foot-and-mouth disease was in Britain before it was officially announced.

Mr Brown said media rumours suggesting that this was the case were simply "urban myths".

We did not know of the outbreak before it was reported to Parliament

Nick Brown
There have been reports that Ministry of Agriculture officials had made enquiries about obtaining timber for burning animal carcasses before the outbreak was confirmed.

But Mr Brown told the Commons agriculture committee that neither he nor the department knew of the outbreak before the official announcement was made three weeks ago.

He said: "There are a number of urban legends doing the rounds that the ministry knew beforehand. They are not true."

Contingency plans

Mr Brown said any such enquiries, if they did take place, would have been part of the ministry's annual contingency plans.

"Each year there is a contingency exercise and as part of that exercise we regularly check on supplies that the ministry may need," he said.

"I am pretty certain it will turn out to be the regular contingency planning that is part of the routine work of the department.

"We did not know of the outbreak before it was reported to parliament."

Soldier in Cumbria
Army soldiers are starting to help with practical tasks
He added: "It has been reported overseas that we knew of the outbreak before. That is not the case."

The number of cases broke the 400 mark on Wednesday with 16 new cases taking the UK total to 411.

The new cases were confirmed in Cumbria, Devon, Essex, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, County Durham, Monmouthshire and Worcestershire

Two other cases were confirmed in Dumfries and Galloway where the pre-emptive slaughter of 200,000 apparently healthy animals has been delayed by efforts to clear a backlog of confirmed cases.

'Business as usual'

Tory Leader William Hague has already attacked the government's response to the crisis and urged ministers to consider postponing local elections, due on 3 May, in those areas worst affected.

Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons the government would "listen carefully" to representations from people proposing the postponement of local elections on May 3.

But he said he was concerned that such a course might send a signal that Britain was "closed for business."

Crisis continues
411 confirmed cases
350,000 animals slaughtered
95,872 awaiting slaughter
181,000 carcasses destroyed

There were growing fears that livestock movement bans had failed to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease into the Irish Republic.

A spokesman for Ireland's Department of Agriculture confirmed that precautionary restrictions had been imposed on a farm in County Louth near the border with Northern Ireland.

The farm is within the foot-and-mouth surveillance zone of an infected farm near the village of Meigh in South Amargh.

The Dutch agricultural ministry has also confirmed to BBC News Online that two outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease have been found in the east of the country.

It is the second country in mainland Europe to be hit by the disease - two weeks ago a single case was found in north-western France.

Mr Brown said the continued appearance of outbreaks in the UK was the result of the virus incubating in already infected animals.

Hexworthy Farm on Dartmoor National Park
Strict disinfection of farm vehicles continues
He said movement restrictions imposed as soon as the virus was identified in pigs at an abattoir in Essex had helped stop more farms being affected.

However Mr Brown admitted there had been a series of problems to overcome, including the speed of confirming cases, culling animals and disposing of the carcasses.

He said it had been held up by a shortage of vets, a shortage of slaughtermen and the need to make sure contractors' time was effectively managed.

The Ministry of Defence has admitted that only 100 of the 200-plus troops requested by Maff officials for foot-and-mouth duty had been deployed to help with the carcass removal effort.

A Maff spokesman said: "We are using the troops as and when we need them. It is not an issue of cost and bills will be sorted out at a later date.

"The important thing is eradicating the disease, not money."

Elsewhere, around 100 final year veterinary students were already helping to tackle the outbreak, and another 80 were being recruited.

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See also:

21 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Disease prediction 'within days'
21 Mar 01 | Europe
Dutch confirm foot-and-mouth
21 Mar 01 | UK
Rare breeds 'could be lost'
21 Mar 01 | UK
Countdown to a cull
21 Mar 01 | Americas
US tourists shun Britain
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