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Saturday, 16 June, 2001, 05:07 GMT 06:07 UK
The disease that refuses to die
Slaughtered animals from air PA
The disease keeps breaking out in new areas
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Not long ago, government ministers were predicting the UK's foot-and-mouth outbreak would by now be at an end.

Attempts to eradicate it were "in the home straight", they insisted, as the general election neared.

The election past, there is now little need to claim that the disease is finished.

Instead of vanishing, it keeps on appearing with new virulence in areas hitherto unaffected.

In one sense, that is no great surprise. There is still confusion about the exact numbers of sheep which passed through Longtown market in Cumbria last February, when foot-and-mouth disease was beginning to spread.

Inquiry demands

So animals from Longtown may still be spreading the virus without anyone knowing they are liable to be carriers.

Margaret Beckett at news conference Alex Kirby
Margaret Beckett takes Defra's helm
But such pools of infection may not completely explain the outbreak's grip on life.

Unless the government bows to pressure and holds a public inquiry into its own performance, suspicions will persist that it could have done better and ended the disaster sooner.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative agriculture spokesman, believes an inquiry is essential because of the mistakes he thinks ministers made.

He told BBC News Online: "They refused to admit that foot-and-mouth was a serious national crisis, and by doing so they made that crisis worse.

"It was a process of denial. They should explain why they had this very narrow focus on the disease as an economic threat to agriculture.

"That prevented them seeing the wider costs it was exacting from tourism and the rural economy.

Too slow

"They want to avoid too detailed an analysis of what happened in the early stages, especially the time it took them to achieve the slaughter of infected animals within 24 hours of diagnosis, and the time it took to dispose of the carcasses.

"Why didn't they bring the army in to help much earlier on? They were very slow off the mark to begin with.

"If they'd acted as they should have done in those first few weeks, I think you might have seen only about a quarter of the cases that did in fact develop.

"They're worried now about whether they really are on top of the situation."

Mr Yeo is concerned that none of the ministers involved in what he calls "the catastrophic handling" of the crisis remains in office.

Sheep PA
Some sheep are still untraced
He says he has evidence the government has been trying to force farmers to sign the Official Secrets Act "to prevent them speaking out" about the way the outbreak has been handled.

The new minister in charge is Margaret Beckett, who heads the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

She said: "The veterinary advice has always been that there would be a long tail to the disease, that there may be fluctuations in daily numbers of cases and that its complete eradication would take some time.

Limited opportunity

"Numbers of daily cases are dramatically down, but we take very seriously the disease situation which remains in certain areas."

She has refused so far to say whether or not there will be a public inquiry.

A Defra spokeswoman told BBC News Online no farmers were being required to sign the Official Secrets Act.

Mrs Beckett and her team have an opportunity to win back confidence, despite the mistakes of their predecessors. But they will have to move fast to do so.

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12 Jun 01 | UK
Foot-and-mouth 'tail' fears
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