Taxpayers will have to pay out £2.5bn for government spending on the foot and mouth crisis to date, according to internal Whitehall calculations.
The money is equivalent to the sum raised by 1p on the basic rate of income tax. The amount could have been used dramatically to cut hospital waiting lists and class sizes.
The fact that it has been spent on the crisis instead will stoke the row over public services, making it harder for Tony Blair to deliver on his promises to improve them and increasing anger over his determination to bring in private finance.
So far, senior government sources have told The Independent on Sunday, around £1bn has been pledged to farmers in compensation for slaughtered animals. Another £1.5bn has been spent to finance the vast operation involved in killing and disposing of the carcasses.
The sums dwarf the value of the meat export trade – roughly £570m – that the mass slaughter policy has been designed to protect.
Critics say that vaccination would both have been more effective and saved vast sums of money urgently needed for education and health, the Government's professed priorities.
The £1bn earmarked for compensation could have built 13,300 more classrooms, more than one for every two of the 25,000 schools in the country. In addition, the £1.5bn spent on the slaughter would have financed 10,000 hospital beds, enough to wipe out the national shortage.
Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said yesterday: "The Government says it has to resort to the private sector to fund schools and hospitals, yet it has been able to find, without blinking, the equivalent of a penny on income tax to fund the mishandled foot and mouth crisis, money that could instead have drastically reduced waiting times and class sizes.
"This surely proves the case that a full independent inquiry is needed into its handling of foot and mouth."
Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, added: "At last we know the real cost of the incompetence of the old Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and of Tony Blair's blind allegiance to agribusiness."
The huge cost of the crisis is bound to provoke a rethink in Government of the mass slaughter policy.
The need for reconsideration will be underlined by a quiet resumption of meat exports last week by the Netherlands, the European country hardest hit by the epidemic, after Britain.Reuse content