Two million animals in the queue for death

April 7, 2001 The Guardian by Paul Brown and John Vidal

As Tony Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, toured the countryside yesterday, reassuring the public that Britain was getting back to normal, the astonishing scale emerged of the backlog of animals still to be slaughtered and disposed of because of the foot and mouth epidemic.

The number has risen steeply to 2m, half a million more than five days ago, the last time official figures were available. It will take at least another six weeks to clear the backlog as the government gets further and further behind in coping with the crisis.

The majority of animals waiting to be killed, around 1.6m, are urgent welfare cases - stranded on farms and on hills where their condition is deteriorating because they cannot be moved to shelter for lambing or new grass.

But worse, from the point of view of controlling the epidemic, are the 400,000 animals that have been in close contact with the disease and which are supposed to be killed within 48 hours as a precaution. Many are still alive for up to a week simply because there is nowhere to dispose of their carcasses.

There are also 366,000 unburied and decomposing carcasses littering the countryside in areas which would normally be welcoming tourists at this time of year. These "carcasses yet to be disposed of" figures were removed last weekend from the Ministry of Agriculture's website to hide the extent of the problem.

All infected animals are supposed to be killed within 24 hours and those on neighbouring farms, normally involving five times as many animals, within 48 hours - but this is not happening.

The inability to kill all the livestock that may be affected risks a resurgence of the disease, Mr Blair has been told by Professor David King, the government's chief scientist.

The emphasis has been on killing infected animals to stop the disease spreading. Despite the failure to carry out the firebreak cull on neighbouring farms this policy appears to work. Only 33 new cases were identified on Thursday and just 26 by yesterday afternoon, bringing the total to 1,084.

Mr Blair spent the day in the York area to prove that tourism was still thriving. Mr Prescott was on the Norfolk Broads before visiting Shropshire and Cheshire.

Longleat safari park in Wiltshire will reopen today after a two-week postponement, and English Heritage announced that Stonehenge would reopen next week, though visitors must stick to the paths.

But elsewhere there were signs that the disease is still spreading into the heart of Britain's national parks and centres of tourism in the Lake District and Peak District of Derbyshire. In the Lake District several hundred sheep were found infected west of Penrith near Skiddaw mountain.

Vets were last night also investigating the source of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Scottish borders, 30 miles from the nearest previously confirmed outbreak.

Representatives from the Chinese civil rights action group are to meet the agriculture minister Nick Brown today to discuss their community's annoyance over the allegation that a Chinese restaurant could be responsible for bringing foot and mouth to Britain. A mass demonstration is also planned by Britain's Chinese community in London tomorrow.

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