Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has been anxious to dispel fears that it is holding back on the announcement of a large-scale livestock cull until after the general election this Thursday.

Conservative party leader William Hague had made the suggestion during a speech in Cheltenham that the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) would be reluctant to discuss details of an intensified and unpopular foot and mouth cull until after the votes were cast. He demanded that the department "come clean" about its future plans for dealing with the highly contagious virus.

"There are rumours about mass culls after election day, police leave being cancelled, haulage contractors being taken on," he explained: "They do owe it to the people of the countryside to come clean about what is happening."

Unusually, MAFF responded to the concerns of the opposition party by issuing a statement: "There are no plans for large-scale increases in the slaughter regime and no planning of a strategic or practical nature for widespread culling of animals although, of course, the Ministry keeps under constant review its policies in the light of new information."

"Any planning that is being done is specifically to address the current situation [largely in the in the Settle-Clitheroe area] and as a contingency for any new outbreaks. It does not indicate any plans for fundamental changes in the culling regime."