Foot and mouth disease is fast becoming an epidemic as it leaves a trail of destruction behind it.

As of midday Friday, there are 37 confirmed cases of the disease, but it is expected that this figure will rise over the weekend. New cases were confirmed today [Friday] in Kirkcudbright in Scotland, Bromham in Wiltshire, Penrith in Cumbria, Dinnington in Northumberland and Longtown near Carlisle. Government officials believe that more case will be discovered next week.

"At the moment we're looking at five or six (new cases) a day and we might continue to see that number over the next week," said the chief veterinary officer.

New cases were found yesterday in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and there are fears the disease could have crossed over to the Irish Republic. The Irish Republic strengthened its measures against the disease by setting up extra checkpoints on its border with Northern Ireland. A case of foot and mouth found yesterday in Northern Ireland is close to the Irish Republic's border.

Irish authorities on Friday sealed off a sheep farm in County Louth, close to the border with Northern Ireland. An abattoir in County Kildare near Dublin was also closed. Reports that some sheep brought from England for immediate slaughter had been taken instead for slaughter to a meat processing plant across the border in the Irish Republic have yet to be confirmed.

UK government official say that all the cases discovered so far can be traced back to livestock movements before the standstill imposed last week.

Retail experts predict that British meat could run out by the weekend as panic buying for depleted meat stocks begin to take hold. Supermarket chains have begun to source imports of meat to plug the gap and have warned of price increases in available stocks.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has ordered greater BSE-related checks on meat imports after remnants of spinal cord were found in two consignments of beef from Germany and The Netherlands in recent days.

The FSA said increased imports of meat might mean that Britain would be exposed to further risk of BSE, because the shipments would come from countries where that disease was prevalent.

The UK government is to ease the ban on the movement of livestock to ensure that unaffected supplies can get to markets. Farms are to be granted licences to help ensure the transportation of animals to abattoirs is carried out safely. The licences scheme should be operational by Monday.

Efforts to stop the disease spreading to Europe continue as countries step up a mass cull of animals that have been imported from Britain or been in contact with them.

France plans to destroy more than 45,000 sheep, goats and cattle, while in Germany, officials have ordered the immediate destruction of all sheep and goats imported from the UK in the last four weeks. The French Government is also set to announce plans on Friday for a temporary ban on livestock from the Irish Republic. So far no cases of foot and mouth disease have been discovered in mainland Europe.

People travelling to Europe from the UK have also been the subject of checks as humans and objects can carry the disease. Channel tunnel operator Eurotunnel said it would disinfect all vehicles travelling from Britain as a precaution. Vehicles using the tunnel would be required to roll through a pool containing disinfectant.

Portugal said travellers arriving by sea or air from Britain should surrender all food and wipe their feet on a chemically impregnated sponge. It is expected that these measures will be taken up by other countries. published a feature on foot and mouth. To read it, click here.