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The BBC's political correspondent Shaun Ley
"Politicians are arguing who should be in charge"
 real 56k

Anthony Gibson of South West NFU
"We have been waiting a long time for action"
 real 56k

The BBC's environment correspondent Robert Pigott
"Animals will be slaughtered whether they have the virus or not"
 real 56k

RSPCA Chief Vet Chris Laurence
"Very pregnant ewes are not being sedated before they are shot"
 real 28k

Saturday, 24 March, 2001, 19:40 GMT 20:40 UK
Mass slaughter intensifies
Troops help out at an abbattoir
The number of confirmed cases now stands at 560
The government is intensifying the slaughter of farm animals in a bid to stop the escalating spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

Its dramatic new policy of automatic slaughter on farms which border onto infected farms comes as the number of confirmed cases rose by 45 to 560.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has been defending the government's handling of the crisis during a meeting with farming and tourist leaders in Devon, one of the worst affected area.

Conservative leader William Hague wants him to appoint a "crisis cabinet" to meet daily until the outbreak is under control.

Tony Blair arriving in Cumbria
Tony Blair faced angry farmers in Devon
Mr Blair's decision to meet face-to-face with his critics comes a day after farmers' leaders accused the government of overseeing a "communications shambles" about how animals are culled.

He pledged after Saturday's meeting to stand by farmers hit by the "hellish" outbreak.

Mr Blair said: "We are doing everything we can, not only to get on top of the disease, to control and eradicate it, but to make sure that people here get not just the compensation they need but financial help they need for the future."

The government decision to allow automatic slaughter on farms which neighbour infected farms follows warnings from senior advisers about the potentially disastrous toll of the disease.

The extended cull will apply to cattle as well as to sheep and pigs, and is in addition to the 3km-wide cull now underway in the disease "hot-spots" of Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway.
Disease totals
368,041 animals slaughtered to date
204,753 animals awaiting slaughter
246,236 carcasses destroyed

Announcing the stepped-up slaughter, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said: "By getting the discovery-to-slaughter rate down to 24 hours or less, then we can have a significant impact on the disease itself.

"By pursuing our dangerous contacts policy, we can also have a significant impact on the course the disease will take."

As the confirmed disease total continues to rise in the UK, a second outbreak has been found in France, at a farm east of Paris.

Troops move in

The Army has been given a more active role in the crisis with senior officers setting up a team inside the MAFF to help in the co-ordination of the government's slaughter policy.
Army troops at MAFF offices in Carlisle
Troops have been drafted in to help MAFF officials

Brigadier Malcolm Wood, head of the Army logistics team working with MAFF, said his troops could help with the slaughter itself, or in the removal or burial of bodies, if needed.

It is now taking an average of 12 hours between cases being confirmed by vets and animals being slaughtered - about half what it was before.

But the problem has been in trying to speed up the period between farmers reporting suspected cases and slaughter.

'Large epidemic'

The government hopes an increase in the number of vets, with volunteers from overseas and final year student recruits, will help ease this problem.

The average time taken to dispose of carcasses has dropped from four days in the first week of the crisis to 36 hours.

The measures follow an official government report which estimated that there would be more than 4,400 cases of foot-and-mouth by June.

My message to the government is get it together. Get a grip

William Hague

The report said Britain's farming industry was facing a "very large epidemic" which will "continue for many months", with one estimate suggesting that the epidemic could grow by 70 cases a day.

Conservative Party leader William Hague wants Tony Blair to appoint a "crisis cabinet" to meet daily until the outbreak is under control.

Addressing the Conservative Local Government Conference in Coventry on Saturday, he accused the government of failing to act quickly enough to contain and control the epidemic.

He said: "It has failed to act with anything like the necessary speed or vigour and has consistently shown itself to be behind the game."

He added: "My message to the government is get it together. Get a grip."

Illegal meat worries

Campaigners have called for a windfall tax on banks' profits to help businesses struggling because of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The Federation of Small Businesses regards the service being offered by banks to struggling tourist operators and farmers as "patchy".
A sign confirming a cancelled church service at Sowerby near Penrith, Cumbria
The crisis is affecting all aspects of rural life

But banking leaders responded by saying they would help any such businesses through the crisis.

Concern is also being raised about illegal meat imports being smuggled into the UK in consignments of fruit and vegetables.

Customs officials say up to 200 batches of illegally imported meat are discovered every month.

But many more are hidden in consignments of fruit because they are not subject to the same stringent checks as meat.

It is thought illegally imported meat could be a source of the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

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See also:

24 Mar 01 | Europe
France steps up disease alert
22 Mar 01 | Scotland
Slaughter moves to Dumfriesshire
02 Mar 01 | Northern Ireland
Moves to stop spread of disease
23 Mar 01 | Education
Disease crisis hits exams
23 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Ten days for election decision - Blair
23 Mar 01 | Europe
EU approves limited vaccination
24 Mar 01 | Europe
'Fraud' spreads French outbreak
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