pounds 200 `passports' for pets to be piloted next year

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The Independent Online
TOURISTS AS well as business travellers will be included in a pet passport pilot scheme unveiled today as the Government's replacement for the UK's tough quarantine system.

Heathrow airport, the Channel Tunnel and Dover and Portsmouth ports will be included in the experiment to prove that the nation can remain rabies- free through vaccination of dogs and cats. The Swedish-style scheme, which will go live from next April, will cost pounds 200 per pet and be restricted to the selected ports and Western European countries, The Independent has learned.

Previous plans for the pilot project allowed only travellers who spent more than two months abroad to participate, but junior Agriculture minister, Elliot Morley, will announce today that even tourists who spend just one week away can take part. Ministers are acutely aware of the criticism that the Government could be seen to be acting solely in the interests of rich businessmen or diplomats who spend months abroad with their pets and want to make the scheme as accessible as possible.

"To make the scheme more realistic, we wanted to include people who go to Spain for a fortnight or less. We can then get a better assessment of how it might work in practice," one insider said.

To restrict numbers, only Le Shuttle rather than Eurostar, together with selected ferry operators at Dover and Porstmouth and certain airlines at Heathrow, will be allowed to take part. Similarly, Canada and the US will not be included in the pilot despite pressure from some animal rights campaigners who have spent years attacking the current UK requirement for six-month quarantine. Under the scheme, each pet will have a microchip implant registering its vaccination and a blood test six months later to ensure that it is fully protected.

Vets in the visited country will then have to check for ticks and worms on the animals 48 hours before a return journey. This element of the scheme will mean that day-trippers will not be able to take part.

Ministers will reveal that the pounds 200 charge would be realistic for the service, but will point out that such a fee would be less than 10 per cent of average current kennelling costs.

The vaccination will have to be renewed every year. If the scheme is successful, it is hoped that a full-blown system of pet passports will be introduced by 2001 at the latest.

Alex Ross, spokesman for the RSPCA, said that he welcomed the scheme as a decisive break with the UK's 100-year-old "Draconian" quarantine laws.

"A system that is based on vaccinated pets against disease rather than locking them up for six months at a time is a big step forward. It's what science supports and what other countries already do," he said.

As well as the European Union, the European Economic Area will be used for the scheme, allowing Norway and Switzerland to be included.

Baroness Hayman, the new Agriculture minister, will be on hand to help announce the pilot in her first public appearance in the job.