Ministers accused of playing politics with foot-and-mouth

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Indy Politics

It took a serious crisis to divert Gordon Brown from spending the evening watching his native Scotland achieve a remarkable victory over France in Paris.

Instead of savouring every moment from the Parc des Princes, the football-loving Prime Minister was forced to hold a series of meetings on the unfolding foot-and-mouth crisis.

The shock recurrence of the disease, five days after the Government declared that it had been eradicated, is the lowest point of his 11-week premiership. It leaves his administration on the defensive, facing hard questions over its competence, efficiency and even honesty. It also gives the opposition an ideal opportunity to try to remove some of the early gloss from Mr Brown's leadership.

Downing Street has stressed that the decision to lift the surveillance zone around the site of the original outbreak last Saturday was based on scientific evidence. In its defence, it says more than 8,000 samples were taken from livestock within the zone and that animals which had left it had been traced. All the tests had been negative.

As two reports last Friday pointed to a Government-run research facility as the most likely source of the virus leak, it was convenient for Debby Reynolds, the chief veterinary officer, to give Surrey the all-clear. Yesterday, she denied coming under political pressure to break the good news prematurely. But officials and ministers, who admit to being stunned by the return of foot-and-mouth, know voters may take a more sceptical view.

Given the virus can survive in water for up to seven weeks, was there undue haste in announcing last month's outbreak was over? Should the quarantine period have been doubled?

Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Environment Secretary, said: "This was clearly a tragic misjudgement. If this is what happens when Gordon Brown takes personal control of a crisis, he's better off out of it."

British agriculture now faces a crisis as grave as during the foot-and-mouth epidemic six years ago, as September is the busiest trading season for livestock.

Were it to be proved the Government was doubly responsible – first by allowing the virus to escape from its Pirbright research facility and then by failing to get a grip on the initial outbreak – Mr Brown's honeymoon with the voters could be at an end.