27 July 2001

F&MCLEAN-UPHALTISBODYBLOWTOHOPESOFANEARLYENDTOCRISIS

"Whatever practical resources are needed". What price now Prime Minister Tony Blairs promise to let nothing stand in the way of tackling foot-and-mouth quickly and responsibly?

Yet this week farmers were stunned to learn that Mr Blair secretly ordered a halt to the clean-up operations on the grounds of cost. Earlier this week confusion surrounded the question of whether the end of cleansing and disinfection on F&M-hit farms was a permanent or temporary measure pending a two-week review.

Either way, it is a terrible indictment of this governments commitment, or lack of it, to eradicating F&M this summer. Unless that happens, what is to stop the virus rampaging through so far unaffected areas this autumn?

It also means that nearly 6000 farms undergoing disinfection will now be put in limbo. What hope for those producers and their families who have already suffered so much? How can they rebuild their businesses when they are denied the help they need to ensure all traces of infection are removed from their farms. Also what are the risks of leaving infected premises untreated?

Insult was added to injury this week with the announcement that payments under the Livestock Welfare Disposal Scheme are to be reduced significantly for light lambs.

It all adds up to a picture of a government which is confident that F&M is, as it so often reminds us, under control. After all, are we not on the "home straight" as Mr Blair predicted? As the number of new cases continues to rise, government action, or rather inaction, begins to look dangerously complacent.

Meanwhile, our thanks to Prince Charles for highlighting the plight of rural Britain. He was right to warn that should we fail to revitalise the rural economy, the consequences will be "too awful to contemplate".

But to achieve that will take decisive action, leadership and all the resources it is necessary to muster. Compromising disease control by dithering over costs will not help that process.