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Programme highlights Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
Foot and mouth figures: interpretations disputed
Can foot and mouth be beaten if tourists return?

Today's newspaper headlines spoke for themselves: 'Blair upbeat after being told worst of foot and mouth is over', says this morning's Guardian: or as the Telegraph puts it, 'Culling Policy is starting to bite.'

The foot and mouth crisis had turned a corner.

But could the optimism generated in Downing Street yesterday be premature? The Government's experts are working on the basis of computer predictions - published on the Ministry of Agriculture website.

Brown explained why numbers awaiting slaughter still rise

The graphs show a worst-case in which we end up with hundreds of cases each day, and the disease is still rampant through the summer. The next line of the chart shows a much less depressing scenario, with the outbreak peaking at a hundred cases a day in May. The best-case suggests that the peak has already past, and it's downhill all the way to the election: and that's the line that the politicians are praying for.

True picture?

But the Conservative's Agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo, again raised concerns that MAFF-published figures were not showing the true picture.

For the more optimistic interpretation of recent figures to be justified, the time between identification and slaughter of an animal must have been reduced.

Yet, the World at One spoke to Steve Heaton who has been compiling figures for the National Farmers' Union in the North West. He told us that in Cumbria at least, those targets are not being met.

Election deadline

The reason why ministers would like to foster an optimistic interpretation of the figures is easy to understand. Tony Blair - for one - has a deadline in mid-May for calling a June election, and he very much hopes that the outbreak will be into what Nick Brown calls its 'long tail' by then.

Company of gurkhas combat foot and mouth today

The tourist industry, too, will find it much easier to salvage something from the summer season if the sense of crisis abates.

But there is a downside. All sides agree that controlling the foot and mouth outbreak requires extreme vigilance. If the public - and the farming community - believes the problem is on the way to resolution, the risks are clear. We put this point to Chris Smith,the minister responsible for tourism.

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 ON THIS STORY
Culture Secretary, Chris Smith
"There is a common sense consensus about the need to keep visitors coming"
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