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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 August 2007, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Martha Kearney's week
A foot-and-mouth footpath closed sign
The countryside has been hit again

By Martha Kearney
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

I wonder if, as a son of the manse, Gordon Brown has been flicking through the book of Exodus lately. 

Our land seems to have been hit by Biblical plagues... first the floods, now what the Bible calls pestilence, the fifth plague which eliminated all Egyptian livestock. 

I suppose we can only be relieved that there have been no frogs so far, though I have caught three mice in my kitchen.

Mr Brown has certainly faced a baptism of fire (seventh plague - hail mixed with fire) in his first weeks in office. 

There must have been horror in government as well as amongst farmers about the return of foot-and-mouth disease. 

David Cameron, scarred by criticism about his Rwanda trip, delayed his holiday in France to visit the affected area.

The Conservative leader's party raised the question of funding of the Pirbright laboratory, an issue we discussed on Monday's programme.

Money for biological research has been cut by the government and an official report described the premises as shabby, though ministers argue that a £121m building programme is under way. 

If the outbreak can be attributed to any erosion of infrastructure, then Mr Brown will face awkward questions about funding cuts while he was Chancellor.

Footpath anger

So far, he has escaped censure for the crisis. Even David Handley, the firebrand farmer who led the fuel protests, was full of praise for his handling of the crisis.

He did have other criticisms though, as have many farmers, but it is interesting how quickly the government has responded to their concerns. 

Some in Surrey were angry that the footpaths in the surveillance area remained open. They were quickly closed. 

Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Gloucestershire
Mr Brown has also had to deal with flooding

In the rest of the country, farmers have been unable to take animals for slaughter or to dispose of dead carcasses (fallen stock).

On Wednesday's programme we were able to reveal the government's plans to relax the ban.

That was greeted with relief though it is not without risks. If there are substantial outbreaks of foot-and-mouth beyond the original surveillance area then lifting the ban could be seen as premature, caving in to political pressure.

It's been clear, talking not just to farmers but other rural businesses like abattoirs around the country, that this has been a terrible summer for the countryside.

Already battered by the floods and the effect on crops and tourism, the last thing anyone needed was foot-and-mouth, especially from the very site which was supposed to be developing protection from the virus.

Conference speech

Presumably Mr Brown had planned to while away his summer in Weymouth, building sandcastles with his boys with the odd moment of escape into Gertrude Himmelfarb. 

It has been the lure of Cobra emergency meetings instead, but perhaps these crises will influence his thoughts on election timing: a reminder of those events, dear boy.

David Handley
Outspoken farmer David Handley backed Mr Brown's actions

There is no doubt an entire grid already prepared for the early autumn with Brown's conference speech as the climax after a series of policy announcements and reviews.

On Thursday's programme we speculated about his plans for education reform.

A Brownite minister has told me that Sir Mike Tomlinson's plans for an overarching diploma embracing A-levels and vocational qualifications is under active consideration. 

I interviewed Sir Mike himself who told us: "What I think is more true now than then is that there continue to be serious questions about A-levels, the extent to which they are the gold standard and the extent to which they do the job they were initially set out to do."

Sir Mike said there was a "mood about" in Westminster which "indicates a willingness to revisit the issue".

A-level plans

That idea was backed up by the former education secretary Estelle Morris, who said she thought Mr Brown would look at moving towards an integrated system in order to avoid the new vocational diplomas being seen as second class.

The political pitfalls are clear, as scrapping A-levels would meet with public resistance, but there are attractions too.

So far, Mr Brown has talked about the importance of education and has endorsed Tony Blair's city academies, but he has yet to make his own mark on the policy. 

Supporters of Tomlinson argue that the proposals would boost skills and vocational training which have always been a big part of the Brown agenda.

However, it may be that Mr Brown doesn't have the time to swot up on 14 to 19-year-old education if there are more plagues to contend with.

There's still number three - plague of gnats - or even worse number six - unhealable boils. That would certainly cause an NHS crisis Mr Brown could do without.

Gordon Brown will reap the whirlwind as the cuts he introduced as chancellor bite and bite hard. Population in the UK in the last three years has grown by millions, and 22,000 NHS beds have been cut, in the face of the worse winter predicted for decades due this year.
Jim Evans, Brighton

This newcomer to the political scene is great, I'll definitely vote for him. If only he had responsibility for difficult areas such as crime, health, education then a couple of dour television performances would soon sort out the mess created by the last bunch. Now who were they; Blair, Brown, no it's gone, I can't remember.
Mike McLean, Romford

Why no comments from the BBC on Brown's crazy idea to demand non-British Guantanamo inmates be returned to the UK? If there are not enough problems, the intelligence services will be forced, at great cost, to watch over these people - it should be remembered that they were captured in Afghanistan.
CKH, London

There's a bit of me that is suspicious about all these supposed crises that have suddenly struck the country the minute Gordon Brown has jumped into the hot seat. I wonder whether the government spin machine has hyped up some of the situations, particularly the terrorism and the foot and mouth outbreak to make their glorious leader look like a man in control and to give him an appropriate stage for his first few weeks?
Bruce Mcaaw, Grantham

"in the face of the worse winter predicted for decades due this year." Predicted by whom ? and where ?
Bill Dukenfield, Weston-Super-Mare

Each plague is an opportunity - to deal with both the crisis and the wider underlying causes. A constructive use of function creep, which can extend to examining the fitness of the tools we use, and those like the good parts of comphrehensive education that we couldn't implement last time around.
Bruce Dickson, London, UK

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