Foot-And-Mouth Cases Rocket; UK Gov't Under Fire

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - As Britain's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease continues to spread across the country, the government for the first time has found itself under attack by critics at home and abroad for the way it is dealing with the crisis.

Sunday saw the largest number of new cases reported for a single day, as the highly-contagious livestock disease spread to another 25 locations, bringing the total number of cases to 164.

By Monday afternoon 177 cases were confirmed, and the government said it was considering an emergency cull of half a million sheep which cannot be moved from their winter pastures for fear of spreading the virus further afield.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said he was "absolutely certain" the outbreak was under control.

But the Conservative Party's agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo, argued that the situation was approaching a national emergency. He called on the government to send in troops to help dispose of animal carcasses lying in fields.

Yeo compared the government's response to that of other European countries, where drastic measures appear so far to have prevented the disease from taking hold.

Tens of thousands of suspect animals were destroyed in France, Germany and the Netherlands, while the Irish sent in the army to seal off the border after a confirmed case struck a farm in Northern Ireland.

Britain has also slaughtered more than 110,000 animals, but after an initial total ban on the movement of livestock subsequently began allowing some farmers to move healthy stock to help relieve meat shortages.

Because humans can spread the virus - but not catch it - Britain also turned parts of the countryside into no-go areas, closing public footpaths across the country and suspending hunting. But while some large public events in rural areas have been cancelled, others are going ahead, to the anger of farmers who fear they may only help to spread the disease further.

Criticism of the government's reaction is now coming from outside the country too. Ireland's Natural Resources Minister, Hugh Byrne, said at the weekend the UK had "totally mishandled" the outbreak.

"They seem to have been of the opinion that this disease was just going to go away - they seem to me and to many people in Ireland to have cared very little about the farmers in Britain and very little about their neighbors like ourselves," he told a British television network.

Meanwhile representatives of the tourism industry have expressed grave concern that the failure to clear up the outbreak swiftly could result in massive revenue losses in the months ahead.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow