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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 11:06 GMT
Foot-and-mouth 'cover up' denied
Burning animals in Berkeley, Gloucestershire
Carcasses are burnt on wood pyres
The government has denied claims it knew about the foot-and-mouth outbreak weeks before it was made public.

It follows claims by two timber merchants that they were approached by Ministry of Agriculture (Maff) officials two weeks before the latest outbreak became public knowledge and asked if they could supply wood in the event of an outbreak.

The Department has responded by issuing a statement saying "it was completely untrue" to suggest Maff had any prior knowledge of the disease reaching Britain before the first known case in an Essex abattoir.

No orders were made by Maff at the time, and it has suggested the calls to the timber merchants were pure coincidence and may have been part of an emergency planning exercise.

You would immediately think something was going on, for them to ring two weeks before an outbreak

Fran Talbot, timber merchant

Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown told the Agriculture Select Committee, "There are a number of urban legends doing the rounds."

Mr Brown said there were "contingency exercises" carried out by his department and it was "perfectly possible" that a junior official had done a ring round.

But he denied that he knew about the outbreak "at a time earlier" than was announced to Parliament.

One of the timber merchants, Mike Littlehales said the last time he received such an approach from Maff was at the time of the 1967 outbreak.

Official request

Mr Littlehales, who is now retired, told BBC Radio Four's Today programme: "I got this call from a lady who said `This is the Ministry of Agriculture, would you be interested in supplying timber in case of foot-and-mouth?' because she wanted to update her records.

"When I heard it a couple of weeks later on the television about the outbreak, I said to my wife `That seems very strange, that lady phoning me up a couple of weeks ago about the timber for foot-and-mouth. I wonder if they already knew then'?"

Staffordshire timber merchant Fran Talbot said she had a similar experience: "They wanted the timber in case of foot-and-mouth and I know they burn animals.

"What would you think if you had a phone call like that and your business was timber? You would immediately think something was going on, for them to ring two weeks before an outbreak."

Crisis continues
395 confirmed cases
223,564 animals slaughtered
95,872 awaiting slaughter
159,874 carcasses destroyed

In a statement, Maff told the Today programme: "From time to time we do emergency planning exercises. We are not aware if this was one of these cases. It is completely untrue that we knew about the outbreak before the Essex case emerged."

The number of foot-and-mouth cases currently stands at 395 after the biggest day yet for outbreaks on Tuesday.

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See also:

18 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Elections still planned for May
20 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Tories attack over foot-and-mouth
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