Livestock epidemic widens its menace for British farms : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

March 24, 2001

Livestock Epidemic Widens Its Menace for British Farms


LONDON, March 23 -- Forecasts about Britain's foot-and-mouth epidemic worsened alarmingly today, prompting the government to redouble eradication efforts and casting doubt on Prime Minister Tony Blair's carefully nurtured plan to seek re-election this spring.

"This will be a large epidemic, it will grow fast and it will continue for many months," Dr. Debby Reynolds, veterinary director of the Food Standards Agency, said at an Agriculture Ministry briefing.

She cited a ministry report projecting that the number of affected farms and other sites, instead of tailing off, would soon rise by 70 each day, almost twice the rate of current increases, and would top 4,000 by June. Today's count rose by 34 cases, to a total of 514 since the outbreak was detected Feb. 20.

Only 1 percent of British farms have been affected so far, but that understates the impact the disease has had on British society, which is deeply rooted in rural traditions.

David King, the government's chief scientist, said officials had lost control of the spread of the highly contagious disease because of the delay between finding the virus and slaughtering the animals. "Based on that," he said, "we can say that looking at Great Britain as a whole, the situation is not under control at the moment using the current report-to-cull times which are being used in the field."

Mr. Blair, who learned on Thursday of the crisis' true dimensions and the inadequacies in the government's steps to rein it in, was reported to have reacted with a mixture of dismay and fury. He felt he had been given incomplete information about the transfer of infected animals, the number of veterinarians and shortages of essential items like insecticide and bullets for culling animals.

He vowed to take personal charge of the emergency on his return from a two-day trip to Stockholm for a European summit meeting. Before Mr. Blair departed Thursday, he ordered the creation of two-square-mile "firebreak cull" killing zones around every infected farm, and said the time between diagnosis and slaughter had to be reduced to a maximum of 24 hours.

Mark Woolhouse, a government adviser from the veterinary epidemiology department at the University of Edinburgh, said, "We are all agreed that it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better."

He warned that the disease could become "fully established" as an ineradicable condition in Britain unless new measures were adopted. "It is clear that this epidemic is indeed out of control, and therefore we have to consider other options," like those Mr. Blair ordered.

Chief Veterinary Officer Jim Scudamore said the crisis was now officially worse than the outbreak that crippled British agriculture for eight months in 1967. In just over four weeks, more than 480,000 animals have been slaughtered or marked for culling, 50,000 more than were condemned in the earlier episode.

Mr. Blair's interest in asserting his leadership was heightened by the political sensitivity of the moment. He must call for the scheduling of the election by Monday, April 2, in order to allow for the dissolution of Parliament and the mandatory minimum campaign period to meet his intended election date of May 3.

He has been resisting calls to postpone the balloting, saying it would signal to the world that Britain was an inhospitable place just as tourism was reeling from canceled trips.

A $96 billion industry, tourism is more important to the economy than the $21 billion farming industry. Potential visitors have been put off by reports of farmers' committing suicide and cattlemen unable to leave their property, as well as scenes of empty villages, roads washed down with disinfectant, and incinerated livestock upended on smoking pyres.

"The prime minister is not talking and thinking about general elections," a spokesman said in London today. "The prime minister is spending every spare minute he has working flat out to tackle the problem of foot and mouth."

In Stockholm, however, a comment was captured on a microphone Mr. Blair had not spotted as he spoke with Romano Prodi, the European Commission president. "How long before you must decide? A month?" the Italian asked. "No, about 10 days," Mr. Blair answered.

Before this calamity, the Labor Party was up to 26 points ahead of the Conservatives in polls, a margin that pointed to a victory as overwhelming as the one on May 1, 1997, and promised an end to a notorious distinction that Mr. Blair has called Labor's shame -- its failure to win two consecutive full terms in office.

It has long been Mr. Blair's goal that Labor become the natural party of government in the British mind, like the Conservatives during the last century. In that connection, the party disclosed today that it would join with the third-party Liberal Democrats in so-called tactical voting arrangements in individual districts. These will further marginalize the Tories.

The only occasion in the past four years that helped Conservatives trim Labor's double-digit lead was much like the current one: a truckers' and farmers' fuel tax protest last fall that shut down 90 percent of gas stations. Mr. Blair was seen as arrogant and out of touch with voters, and his ratings tumbled.

A delay now could harm his government's boast of sustained prosperity if the downturn in world markets hits the buoyant British economy. If he delays the vote, the earliest expectation will be for the fall. The situation and his reaction to it pose another challenge to one of Mr. Blair's proudest claims: that Labor is a competent manager of the country.

Though the Conservatives adopted a bipartisan approach at the start of the outbreak, this week they decided Mr. Blair was vulnerable and went on the attack, accusing the government of mishandling the crisis.

Former Prime Minister John Major pressed today for a postponed vote, saying that Mr. Blair would bear the responsibility "if during the election there is a spread of foot-and-mouth as a result of the movement and traffic of electioneering." Poll results that favored proceeding are now showing majorities against it and exposing signs of a voter backlash if Mr. Blair insists.

He has been eager to act while his lead is so secure, but he may not be risking it by waiting. In the past year he has confronted calamities like the biggest floods in Britain in 400 years, breakdowns in the railroads and the National Health Service and repeated cases of misconduct by government ministers. The Conservatives, under William Hague, have failed to capitalize on any of them, and evidence indicates that the more the public sees of the Tories, the more determined it is to keep them out.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

-- Swissrose (, March 24, 2001

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