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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 22:08 GMT
UK is 'foot-and-mouth free'
Cows being burned
More than 230,000 animals were culled in the county
Northumberland will become the last county in the UK to be declared free of foot-and-mouth disease at midnight on Monday.

The announcement was made by rural affairs minister Lord Whitty.

He told the House of Lords: "Today (Monday), after months of devastation from the biggest epidemic of foot-and-mouth in any country since records began, I can make a good news announcement.

It will be some time, probably months, before our international partners restore our trading status in the European Union and beyond as a fully foot-and-mouth free state

Lord Whitty
"The last county in England and the UK, Northumberland, will be declared foot and mouth free at midnight tonight.

"That is free in the sense that there has been no outbreak for three months and the tests on sheep flocks in the county have yielded negative results."

Lord Whitty said the announcement was "a major step forward" but was "not the end of the story or the end of the risk of the disease."

"It will be some time, probably months, before our international partners restore our trading status in the European Union and beyond as a fully foot-and-mouth free state," he added.

Increased risk

Northumberland has been one of the areas worst affected by foot-and-mouth, with a total of 234,117 animals culled in the county since the outbreak began last year.

The county had one of the first confirmed cases at Heddon-on-the-Wall in February last year.

Lord Whitty said the rural community in the country as a whole had to be "eternally vigilant", with the possibility of the disease re-occuring as re-stocking and lambing took place.

During the last major outbreak of the disease in the UK, in 1967, the last few cases occurred at that stage, he added.

"In today's globalised world", he went on, there was "an increased risk of foot-and-mouth re-entering the country and an increased risk of other exotic animal diseases reaching our shores."

Controversial legislation

Lord Whitty was speaking as the second reading began of the Animal Health Bill, which aims to strengthen protection against future outbreaks of foot and mouth and other infectious diseases.

The controversial legislation would give government vets the power to enter a farm and slaughter all its animals.

It would also force farmers to help in the slaughter, with little right of appeal.

It was branded a "panic measure" and a "bad bill" by the opposition.

'Weakened' inquiry

Meanwhile, it has been claimed that an inquiry into the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Northumberland has been weakened by the absence of Army and government officials.

Northumberland County Council is hosting a five-day investigation into the spread of the virus and how rural communities were affected.

The inquiry is being led by Professor Michael Dower, a former director general of the Countryside Commission and a lecturer in European rural development at the University of Gloucestershire.

He told the hearing today that the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Army had declined invitations to send representatives.

Both organisations said they would reply to questions in writing.

Major part

Professor Dowden said: "The panel very much regrets that neither the department nor the Army will be present to take part in these discussions.

"They played a major part in the handling of the outbreak and their absence will blunt our ability to make a fair judgment about some issues.

"It doesn't invalidate the inquiry and we propose to do the best we can in their absence."

A total of 130 organisations and individuals will give evidence to the inquiry this week, which will report its findings next month.

The BBC's Richard Bilton
"It was the UK's most serious animal epidemic in modern times"
See also:

14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
New slaughter plans under fire
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