There are now 909 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease [FMD] in the UK. 587,000 animals have been slaughtered, of which 421,000 have been buried, and those awaiting slaughter now number 353,000. While agricultural minister Nick Brown insisted that the foot and mouth crisis is “most certainly under control,” Prime Minister Tony Blair today confirmed that the local council elections will not be held on 3 May.

In a statement today, Blair revealed: “I have decided that the national interest is best served by postponing the election until 7 June.” He said that the decision had been made by balancing a consideration of the impact elections will have on the spread of the disease and the impact any election delay will have on the tourism industry.

He stressed the need for “avoiding unnecessary uncertainty for the wider economy” and added that “there is no practical impediment” for why the elections cannot go ahead. Following his visits to the countryside over the past few weeks however, he said that the “feelings and sensitivities of the people in the communities most affected” have been considered; that the “pain and anxiety it [FMD] has caused is clear.”

Blair refused to comment on the date of the general election, but it is widely expected to fall on the same day as the local one. He commented: “To put our democratic process on hold for a long period of time would simply not be good for the national interest, I believe therefore that 7 June strikes the right balance [between controlling the disease and protecting other industries.]”

By indicating that the elections will only be postponed by a month, Blair has pinned hopes strongly on clearing up the disease quickly. Yet the situation in the worst affected areas, where there are stark differences of opinion over the action to be taken, suggests that victory over this highly infectious virus could be further away.

The prime minister is also expected to make a decision soon as to whether to authorise a mass vaccination programme. Questions surrounding vaccination have intensified with the news that vets are running out of the lethal injections used to slaughter the animals, but farmers are protesting that a vaccination policy would put an end to Britain’s disease free status and meat export revenues of around £1bn a year.

In Cumbria, the disposal of cattle carcasses has been delayed while scientists and officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) discuss whether the buried cattle will pose a potential BSE risk to humans. In a bid to speed up the disposal process, animals under five years old are now earmarked for burial rather than burning.

Farmers near Brecon in Wales staged angry protests over the weekend over plans to bury carcasses on nearby land. The protests were called off however after one police officer was injured by a bulldozer and taken to hospital. One man, who the farmers say was not with their protest, has been arrested under suspicion of attempted murder.

In Scotland meanwhile, the number of cases has reached 116, with five more cases confirmed in the Galloway and Dumfries region on Sunday. Talks between The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and MAFF must be held before animals born after 1 August 1996 can be buried.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that BSE could be transmitted from buried carcasses, should any of the slaughtered animals be infected. A statement by the Scottish Executive read: “We have concluded that these risks [of BSE] are acceptable set against the advantages burial would bring for the containment of the Foot and Mouth outbreak and are actively pursuing suitable burial sites.”