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Monday, 23 July, 2001, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Blair halts farm disease clean-up
Prime Minister Tony Blair has ordered a halt to the final cleansing of farms affected by foot-and-mouth disease amid fears the total bill may reach £800m.
The government will continue "preliminary" cleansing and disinfecting but will halt the "secondary" cleansing, which goes on prior to re-stocking to prevent a recurrence of the disease, while a review takes place.
A memo issued by the government's co-ordination centre set up to tackle the disease revealed that Mr Blair had personally demanded a check on "unacceptable" spending.
Mr Blair was reported to have been told the disinfections were costing up to £2m a day, and as much as 10 times as high as on affected farms elsewhere in Europe.
But the government has also stepped up its efforts to tackle the disease "hot spot" in North Yorkshire with the creation of a special "bio-security zone".
A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was possible items unrelated to cleansing were being included in the bill.
He said: "The government is not required to pay for [secondary cleansing] but so far has been doing so.
"The basis on which the government pays for this is being reviewed for a number of reasons.
"It does not prevent farmers carrying out this work at their own expense."
To date only 1,700 farms out of over 8,000 have received final cleansing and disinfection and only £75m has been paid out. But the estimates of the eventual cost prompted the review.
The union is demanding an immediate resumption of final cleansing and disinfection.
"This will leave hundreds of farmers in limbo, unable to plan re-stocking and rebuild their businesses.
"It also sends a very bad message to the farming industry when the emphasis should be on disease control measures."
Conservative agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo said the agricultural community was suffering "incredible anxiety" and demanded the review be carried out in the next few days.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "A delay of more than a few days will be a death sentence for many farmers who depend on this cleanup operation in order to get back into business."
But no efforts will be spared in the so-called "Settle cluster" in North Yorkshire with the county now reaching 120 confirmed cases.
Speaking in Leeds, minister for farming and the food industry, Lord Whitty, said vehicles visiting the 2,700 farms in the zone would be licensed with strict cleaning and disinfecting.
He said: "The outbreak in North Yorkshire is of great concern as it is close to very large pig herds and is threatening the disease-free area south of the Humber.
"We are now the stage where stringent observing of bio-security could bring an earlier end to the disease.
"We need everyone, not just farmers but delivery drivers and silage-makers to take every precaution."