Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a statement on the foot and mouth outbreak.

As I have done on seven previous occasions over the past weeks, I wish to update the House before the Easter recess on the latest position on the disease, set out the measures that the Government is taking and give Hon and Rt. Hon Members the opportunity to raise issues with me.

As of 7.00 pm yesterday, Sunday 8th April, there had been 1134 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease. As at 2.00 pm today I had been informed of a further 10 cases. The number of animals authorised for slaughter - as of 1900 hours yesterday - was 1,366,000, of which 888,000 had been slaughtered and 478,000 awaited slaughter. Around 329,000 animals remained to be disposed of. This is out of a total UK cattle, sheep and pig population of over 55 million, and against a figure of some half a million animals which would go for slaughter in a normal trading week.

It is still too early to predict the future course of the epidemic. The epidemiologists are constantly updating their data as the outbreak progresses but they still cannot say with any certainty how long it will continue. There are some encouraging signs, but this is an exceptionally serious outbreak with a long phase-out period and we cannot afford a moment's complacency.

There is considerable agreement among the four groups modelling the epidemic. In particular, all have concluded that the two key interventions in tackling the disease are:

  • first, and the highest priority, to cull all animals susceptible to the disease (principally cattle, sheep and pigs) on infected farm holdings within 24 hours;
  • second, to cull susceptible animals in neighbouring farms which share a boundary - the so-called contiguous cull - within 48 hours.

Mr Speaker, we appreciate that the latter is very difficult for farmers to accept but it is vital for the overall success of our disease control policy that all potentially infected animals are culled. I urge farmers, in the strongest terms, to co-operate with us in seeing this through. Expert advice is that these premises will have been exposed to infection and need to be dealt with quickly.

I have written to all livestock farmers making three key points. I have set out advice from the Chief Veterinary Officer on biosecurity on-farm. I have urged co-operation with the necessary culling of animals on neighbouring premises to infected holdings. And I have appealed to farmers not to jeopardise their own disease status, and that of other farmers, by moving animals around without a licence. Some of the isolated cases that have appeared in recent days and weeks appear to be directly attributed to farm to farm transmission from infected areas to clean areas. That point was made very forcefully to myself and the Prime Minister at our meeting with the NFU this morning and we share their concerns.

Across the country, the 24 hour report to slaughter target is being met in nearly 80% of cases. Where cases are not completed within 24 hours, they are being dealt with shortly afterwards. The 48-hour target for contiguous premises is more difficult to meet because of sheer weight of numbers, but progress is encouraging, with some areas achieving around 70% within deadline. It is particularly important that we hit this target in any new outbreaks away from the heavily infected areas to prevent further spread, and resources are being concentrated to that end.

In support of this strategy, we have committed more and more resources to ensure that any possible blockages are removed. We have increased the number of vets on the ground very significantly to 1,522, with more being recruited. We are employing over 650 people as temporary Animal Health Officers to supplement the 200 regular officers in the State Veterinary Service. We have appointed 11 Directors of Operations in the most affected areas. The army is deployed in all the key areas, with 1,842 troops committed to this outbreak and I am grateful for the excellent support provided by the army and the MoD.

We have taken a number of other practical steps to eliminate delay. We have introduced a generous standard tariff to speed up the valuation of the animals, whilst at the same time safeguarding farmers' rights. We have reduced the turn-round times for vets visiting farms wherever this is possible, for instance by altering the reporting procedure for new cases.

We are very aware of the financial difficulties many farmers are facing at this difficult time and have addressed this in four ways.

First, compensation for slaughtered animals is currently estimated to reach over £247 million and is still rising.

Second, we are paying £156 million in optional agrimonetary compensation to livestock farmers. Payments begin this week. This package is worth some £2,750 to the average dairy farmer, £650 to sheep farmers, £650 to suckler cow premium claimants and £450 to beef special premium claimants.

Third, we have introduced the Livestock Welfare Disposal Scheme as a last resort for livestock farmers whose animals face welfare difficulties as a result of FMD-related movement restrictions. The tariffs for the animals slaughtered under the scheme are generous. The estimated value of this optional scheme depends on take-up, but it is likely to be in excess of £200 million.

Finally, we have ensured that, where animals slaughtered are the subject of a current subsidy claim, subsidy entitlement will be preserved as a result of the application of EU rules on force majeure.

Overall, we have committed over half a billion pounds to farmers so far in the course of this outbreak.

Vaccination remains an option, but it is not an easy option. There are no easy options. Members are aware of the arguments for and against vaccination. We are prepared to vaccinate if necessary - we have obtained the approval of the EU Standing Veterinary Committee for vaccination in the UK under certain circumstances. But it would be a major step to take, with significant consequences. We are constantly reviewing the position and will continue to do so.

Many farmers are currently keeping cattle indoors, and this is helping to minimise the risk of spread of infection.

We hope that soon it may be possible to release some areas from restrictions, either completely or partially. There are two aspects to this. First, we will be looking at whether we can safely reduce the size of one or two areas that currently extend beyond a 10 km radius. Second, once all the necessary veterinary inspections and blood testing have been completed we will be looking to lift one or two infected areas completely where there have been no new cases for 30 days. I hope that it will be possible to start making progress on both of these actions in the next week or two. But again, disease control must remain the priority.

I and my Ministerial colleagues in many other Departments are doing all they can to promote the message that the countryside is not closed. More and more properties and visitor attractions are opening again and being publicised. We hope that over the Easter period the visitors will return. We have provided updated advice to zoo owners and to Royal Parks, which will help them to make decisions on whether to reopen.

My RHF the Minister for State is today participating in the Informal Council of EU Agriculture Ministers on my behalf in northern Sweden. She will be updating colleagues on the progress of the outbreak here. We are continuing to work very closely with our EU colleagues, who remain supportive of the efforts we are taking to bring the outbreak to an end.

Mr Speaker, we will continue to channel all our efforts into ensuring that our targets of 24 hours from report to slaughter and 48 hours to culling neighbouring farms are met. With the continued support from members of this House, from the farming organisations and many others, together we can succeed in our aim of eradicating this disease.