London (CNSNews.com) - A month after Britain's foot-and-mouth outbreak emerged, the government finally sent in several hundred UK troops Tuesday to help clear a backlog of slaughtered animals, as the Conservative opposition called for a postponement of local council elections, scheduled for early May.
Conservative leader William Hague said it could not be denied that parts of the country most heavily affected by the livestock disease would not be able to hold elections without serious difficulties.
He urged the government to bring forward legislation this week to delay voting, at least in some counties.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has been widely tipped to call an early general election on the same day as local polls are scheduled, May 3. Hague's appeal was the clearest sign yet that the official opposition would like to see the general election delayed too.
Officially the Conservatives have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the question of the general election, not wanting to open itself up to accusations of running scared in the light of poor opinion polls.
But political canvassing, attendance of local meetings, and actual voting will be difficult if not impossible in the light of restrictions of movement in many rural areas.
Large parts of the countryside have been declared "no-go" areas, because humans can spread - although not catch - the highly-contagious disease affecting cloven-hoofed farm animals.
There is also a growing feeling that the government should be focusing totally on eradicating the outbreak, rather than have its energies diverted to election campaigning.
As of Tuesday the number of confirmed foot-and-mouth cases across the UK was approaching 350.
Tuesday also saw the beginning of a breakdown in cross-party consensus over the government's handling of the crisis, with the Conservatives urging new steps to hasten the slaughter and subsequent disposal of sick and vulnerable animals.
Of the some 200,000 animals killed so far, around 60,000 carcasses are lying rotting in fields and stalls across the UK, awaiting government disposal teams. Farmers have been forbidden to move them.
Another 100,000 animals are awaiting slaughter by overstretched agriculture department officials, adding to the sense that the government has lost control, and prompting Conservative calls to send in the army in force to handle the entire culling and disposal process.
Instead the government, after expressing reluctance for week, has now agreed to deploy just 200 army logistics experts to oversee civilian contractors carrying out culling and disposal in two of the worst-hit areas.
Conservative agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo described the response Tuesday as "grossly inadequate."
Hague said troops could be used for digging trenches and constructing pyres. "There are huge resources available there which are not currently being used and on what we've heard so far about the deployment of the army are not going to be used."
\plain\lang1050\f3\fs23\cf0\b Pre-emptive strike
Some farmers late last week threatened a "rural revolt" and vowed to resist if officials came to their farms to kill apparently healthy sheep as part of a pre-emptive cull aimed at curbing the spread of foot-and-mouth.
Up to half-a-million sheep which have shown no sign of the disease face slaughter under the policy, because they are within two miles of an infected herd.
Police in the northwestern Cumbria district are accompanying government officials as they visit farms to kill the sheep. Farmers who resist will ultimately be arrested, police said, although that would be a last resort.
Meanwhile, the government is launching a campaign to counter the damage done to Britain's reputation as a tourist destination, concerned that the usually lucrative summer season may be ruined, at the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds a week, and thousands of jobs.
Tourism Minister Janet Anderson is due to visit the United States to spread the word that Britain remains open to tourism.