The next seven days will be critical in determining whether or not the export ban on live animals, meat and dairy produce from Britain will be lifted, the NFU said today.

NFU President Ben Gill said farmers everywhere now face an anxious wait to find out whether the disease has been contained.

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown told Mr Gill at a meeting this morning that no new cases of foot and mouth disease had been identified over-night.

All the animals involved in the outbreak in Essex had been destroyed and other suspected outbreaks had so far not proved positive.

But Mr Gill said it was still too early to say that a repeat of the catastrophic outbreak of the 1960s will be avoided. He said the NFU will be maintaining contact with the Ministry of Agriculture to monitor the situation literally hour by hour.

Mr Gill said: "It is now more crucial than ever that farmers and everyone in the countryside continues to be vigilant.

"The signs so far are optimistic that we are keeping on top of the problem. We are hoping for the best but fearing the worst."

The European Commission yesterday imposed a ban on all live exports, meat and products from cattle, sheep and pigs, to be reviewed on 1 March. A self-imposed ban was also put in place by MAFF.

Mr Gill added: "If the situation remains stable, the hope is that we will be able to lift the blanket ban on exports from Britain in a week and start lifting the restrictions on affected areas. This will be critical if a wholesale disruption of the entire livestock industry is to be avoided.

"We will be keeping in touch with MAFF to monitor the development of the situation hour by hour. We are holding our breath in the hope that the disease may have been controlled."