Government considers 'very strong arguments' for vaccination

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Pressure to authorise vaccination of livestock in an attempt to halt the spread of foot-and-mouth disease was building yesterday.

Pressure to authorise vaccination of livestock in an attempt to halt the spread of foot-and-mouth disease was building yesterday.

As the Tories called for vaccination for be considered, ministers indicated that the option, which they had fiercely resisted until now, was being seriously considered.

A Downing Street spokesman conceded that there were "very strong arguments for [vaccination] and very strong arguments against".

The Government is reluctant to sanction vaccination for fear it would be interpreted as an admission that foot-and-mouth had become endemic.

But, with 21 new cases reported yesterday bringing the tally so far to 628, ministers are facing up to the grim prospect of the disease continuing to run out of control.

Tony Blair told MPs: "This is like tracking a common cold in the human population. It's very difficult to do, it's a huge practical, logistical effort."

Ministers are now considering whether a programme of mass vaccination, combined with rapid slaughter, could be used to confine the spread. A similar strategy is under way in the Netherlands.

Tim Collins, the Conservative MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, which covers the Lake District, demanded widespread vaccination. "I have been inundated with messages in the last few hours from vets and farmers alike urging that vaccination should now be implemented immediately," he said.

Michael Fabricant, the Tory MP for Lichfield in Staffordshire, where there have been 16 cases, said: "Foot-and-mouth is no longer an epidemic - it's a pandemic. The time to introduce a vaccination policy has arrived."

Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, said he would only authorise vaccination if that course of action was recommended by veterinary experts.

Army personnel started a mass burial of animals yesterday, placing 7,500 sheep in a giant grave at Great Orton, Cumbria. Officers said they expected to bury 10,000 animals a day, rising to double that by the middle of the week. Five new sites for mass graves are also being investigatedto expand the intensive cull.

Brigadier Alex Birtswhistle, the officer in command, said: "My concerns are that we can get enough auctioneers to value, get enough transportation to get the animals here, that we can get enough slaughtermen to slaughter them and finally that we can keep digging the pits fast enough."

Mr Brown launched a worldwide appeal for vets to help supervise the enormous slaughter programme. "We have already disposed of more animals in this disease outbreak than in the 1967 disease outbreak, There has been an enormous amount of work done already," he said.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has changed the rules on the valuation of animals, so that farmers can choose to be paid a flat fee instead of waiting for a price for each animal.