The nightmare of foot-and-mouth disease returned to Britain last night, forcing Gordon Brown to cut short his holiday after only a few hours in Devon to chair a crisis meeting of Cobra, the emergency planning unit in Downing Street today.
The outbreak among cattle on a farm in Guildford has caused an immediate ban in all transport of cattle and pigs in Britain and raised the spectre of the 2001 outbreak that disfigured Britain with pyres of burning of cattle carcasses and cost the nation £8bn in compensation.
One farming expert said last night: "Oh God - not again."
Mr Brown, determined to learn the lessons of the slow response to the previous outbreak, initiated the first part of a Cobra meeting last night by conference call from his holiday in Dorset, before returning to London to chair today's meeting.
Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was recalled from his holiday in Italy to handle the farming measures to combat any spread of the disease. Immediately, a 3km (1.9 mile) protection zone was thrown up around the farm with a 10km (6.2 mile) surveillance zone.
All the 60 beef cattle on the farm will be culled but there are fears it could lead to a ban on tourism to rural areas, which happened during the last outbreak in 2001.
The Prime Minister, who has been riding high in the opinion polls, is keen to avoid spreading panic but he has to balance that with a determined effort to get a grip on the outbreak of the disease before it spreads.
The 2001 outbreak was so serious that it stopped all meat exports from Britain and forced Tony Blair to delay the 2001 general election.
Professor Hugh Pennington, a microbiologist from the university of Aberdeen, said: The worst case scenario is that this can spread on the wind. The virus can travel quite long distances. In 2001, it didn't do that - it was more animal movement that was the cause. That's why there has to be quite draconian measures to nip the outbreak in the bud." He added: "We have to have an appropriate balance. We don't need to panic."
Some farmers are just recovering from the last outbreak having rebuilt their herds after the mass culling that disfigured rural parts of Britain. The farmers and the politicians said they were hoping and praying that it would not be as serious as the outbreak six years ago.
"I do hope that some lessons have been learned and that there is an emergency plan in place which didn't seem to be the case in 2001," said Professor Ian Mercer, a leading expert on the disease.
Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers Union, said he had "grave concern" about the situation.
Speaking on BBC News 24 last night, Mr Kendall welcomed the decision by the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary to return from their holidays to deal with the outbreak.
He spoke of "enormous concern and obviously vivid memories of 2001 and what we want to do is be involved in working with Defra. We want to be as supportive as possible. This would be devastating if it turned out to be a major outbreak."
The preliminary results of tests into the outbreak dismayed the Cobra meeting chaired by a senior Whitehall civil servant in charge of intelligence. The Prime Minister was informed at his holiday location at about 7pm. He ordered Mr Benn to head the civil contingency unit and told his aides he would travel back to London first thing today for the meeting of Cobra in Downing Street at 9am. "What has happened is precautionary," said one of his senior officials. "We are following the report into the last foot-and-mouth outbreak. We are learning the lessons and putting them into practice."
Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "It is essential the Gov-ernment acts quickly to contain this and considers all possible options, including vaccination."
Tim Bonner, a spokesman for the Countryside Alliance, said: "Farmers around the country will be hoping and praying this is an isolated incident and the disease is not already widespread, because last time when we found out about it, it was already everywhere.
"We hope and pray the lessons from last time have been learned. The handling of the crisis in 2001 was an unmitigated disaster. Tourism is the biggest industry in the countryside and right now we are at the height of the season. If the countryside is closed down like in 2001, this could be a disaster for thousands of rural businesses."
A highly contagious disease
Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly contagious infection which affects all cloven-footed species but is not normally fatal in adult animals, although it can kill younger livestock. In cattle, the virus grows inside their stomach and intestines and re-emerges in painful blisters in the mouth and hooves. It can cause a drastic loss in productivity in infected animals, with symptoms including a fever. During the outbreak of 2001, much of the countryside was rendered off limits during the battle to contain the disease.
* Foot-and-mouth was detected in Essex on 19 February 2001, but quickly spread
* 2,000 cases of infection were confirmed in farms across the UK
* 6.5 million sheep, cattle and pigs were culled to stop the spread of the disease. The carcasses were burned and buried
* The outbreak cost an estimated £8bn
* To prevent the spread of the disease, public rights of way across land were waived, causing huge losses in revenue for tourism and agriculture
* A 2005 report warned that five burial sites where tens of thousands of carcasses were still buried would need to be monitored for another 10 yearsReuse content