Originally created 05/04/01

Blair says foot-and-mouth disease coming under control



LONDON -- Britain is in the last leg of its battle against foot-and-mouth disease and will soon stop burning carcasses of slaughtered animals, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday.

"We are getting the disease under control. We have now all but completely cleared the backlog of animals waiting to be slaughtered, as well as the backlog waiting to be disposed of," Blair told a news conference at his office. "The battle is not over yet, but I believe we are in the home straight."

Blair's cautiously upbeat assessment makes it more likely he will call a national election in early June. The prime minister had previously postponed local government elections from May to early June, saying he wanted the government to focus on controlling the disease rather than on campaigning.

A series of opinion polls have detected no damage to the government's high standing because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, and the opposition Conservative Party has shown no evidence of gaining ground in recent months.

The government has caught up with the backlog of dead animals awaiting disposal in Devon, a county in southwestern England that was one of the hardest-hit areas, Blair said.

One last pyre would be lighted in Devon on Thursday, he said, adding that "this will mean that no more pyres to dispose of large numbers of carcasses will be lit after today's."

Nine more infected farms were confirmed on Wednesday, raising the total to 1,534 since the first case was announced on Feb. 20, the Ministry of Agriculture said.

The number of new cases has declined steadily from a high of more than 40 per day at the peak of the outbreak. The government has relaxed its policy of slaughtering livestock on farms next to infected sites, and has lifted "infected area" restrictions affecting some 16,000 farms, Blair said.

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown told reporters that the government expects to spend $820 million to compensate farmers for slaughtered animals.

As of Thursday, the Ministry of Agriculture said 2.4 million animals had been slaughtered, with 59,000 still awaiting disposal. Another 100,000 animals were awaiting slaughter.

The number of animals slaughtered represents 2.5 percent of the nation's herds, Brown said.

The epidemic, which also spread into Ireland and the European continent, shut Britain's livestock out of international trade. Restrictions on movement in the countryside, intended to curb the disease, hurt the tourist industry, notably in the Lake District, which was in hard-hit Cumbria county.

As the numbers of slaughtered sheep, pigs and cattle climbed into the millions, the government mobilized the army to help dispose of the carcasses.

"It has probably been the biggest peacetime logistical challenge that the army has faced," Blair said. "The scale of combating foot-and-mouth disease has far exceeded, for example, the logistical demands even of the Gulf War."

Blair said the government was turning its attention to programs to help farmers and the tourist industry bounce back.

"There is a great deal to do yet to clean up our farms and to restore our tourist industry. It's not going to be an overnight process, it will be a long haul," he said.