Ministers were backing off last night from a programme of selective vaccination of livestock in the face of hostility from farmers. The Government had been expected last week to announce that it was pressing ahead with limited inoculation in the foot-and-mouth hotspots of Cumbria and Devon.
But Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture, and Downing Street admitted they were encountering resistance from the National Farmers' Union, which still prefers mass slaughter to curb the spread of the virus. After meetings in Cumbria, Mr Brown said: "The message from farmers is very clear they want the Government to continue the current policy and see it through to the conclusion." He insisted no final decision had been taken, but promised to tell farmers personally once ministers had made up their minds.
The Government won permission from the European Commission last week to vaccinate 180,000 animals in Cumbria and Devon. It had promised a firm decision first by last Saturday and then by yesterday.
Last night, revealing the extent of government agonising, a Downing Street spokesman said: "It's a live option. It's part of our contingency planning but a decision isn't imminent." He admitted: "Representatives from the NFU and others are mounting strong arguments against it [vaccination]."
However, scientists called into Downing Street pressed Tony Blair to consider vaccination, followed by slaughter, to create a "firebreak" in the worst-affected areas. Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, said he was receptive to the idea of vaccination to complement the slaughter programme.
The Prime Minister travelled to Essex yesterday, where the disease was first identified in February. Since then just 10 cases have emerged there, and none since 21 March, prompting hopes the county could be declared disease-free by the weekend. Mr Brown has built his strategy around eradicating the disease in selected areas and concentrating efforts in the worst-hit zones.
Essex has proved an easier area to counter the infection as it has few sheep, which have been principally responsible for the spread of the disease.
Mike Piggott, the local director of operations for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) said: "We're making steady progress. I think Essex is nearest to being declared disease-free."
Mr Blair, who is today expected to meet Welsh farmers, said: "The aim now is to try and get disease-free status back to [Essex] as soon as possible."
Tess Wright, managing director of the East of England Tourism Board, said a disease-free declaration in Essex would be an "important psychological signal".
Maff announced 25 new outbreaks of foot-and-mouth yesterday, bringing the running total to 934 and prompting hopes that the spread was slowing down. But Tim Yeo, the shadow Agriculture Minister, said: "The remorseless rise in the waiting-list of animals, now over 350,000, that have not been slaughtered but are spreading the infection is clear proof the foot-and-mouth crisis is out of control."
In Cumbria, the burial of cattle at the Great Orton airfield site began after a delay caused by fears that the animals might have been BSE carriers. About 3,000 slaughtered cattle had been held in trucks at the site while Maff and the Department of Health wrangled over safety issues. An Army spokesman, Lt-Col Angus Taverner, of the Royal Artillery, said: "The administration of this problem is coming on in leaps and bounds. I just ask for the patience of the farmers and the public."
Maff apologised yesterday after a telephone line set up for farmers needing advice on animal welfare broke down.
Michael Fabricant, the Tory MP for Lichfield, who identified the problem, said: "It's another example of how the Government had failed to get a grip on the situation."Reuse content