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The Government yesterday refused to rule out a repeat of the controversial contiguous cull, despite new evidence that vaccination could cut the size of a major foot and mouth outbreak by half.

A new cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) found that using vaccination could have a dramatic impact on the scale of a major disease outbreak, reducing the number of animals slaughtered by between 15 and 50 per cent.

The findings will put ministers under intense pressure to order a vaccination programme in any future epidemic unless it is immediately clear that they are dealing with an isolated outbreak. But yesterday senior Defra officials told the WMN that the contiguous cull would remain a policy option that could be used in some circumstances.

Deputy Chief Vet Fred Landeg said: "We are keeping the contiguous cull as an option, but it will not be an automatic one. We want to keep a flexible armoury. It might be that in a particular circumstance and location a contiguous cull is the right thing to do."

The analysis, which follows a year-long modelling exercise by independent experts, found that vaccination would reduce cases of the disease in almost all scenarios, although it was more expensive than conventional culling in small outbreaks.

The study found that the contiguous cull - in which animals on all farms neighbouring an infected premises are slaughtered - increased both costs and the numbers culled.

A spokesman for the modelling company Risk Solutions said that even a "much more limited, less intensive" version of the contiguous cull that was used in 2001 would "increase the number of animals killed overall and, when you feed that into the economics, often produce more cost".

Anthony Gibson, South West director of the National Farmers' Union, welcomed the new report's findings.

"This is a good piece of work, which provides some clear advice. If you have a small outbreak you should snuff it out as quickly as possible using conventional slaughter of infected animals and direct contacts. If it is a bigger outbreak then you should also vaccinate," he said. "The contiguous cull comes out of it as the option that involves the greatest number of animals slaughtered and the greatest expense without being particularly effective. The study does not identify a single scenario in which a contiguous cull would produce the best results. The basic choice is between conventional slaughter and vaccination.

"It is a great pity that this piece of work was not carried out before 2001 because it could have spared us a great deal of expense, misery and unnecessary heartache."

Ministers were criticised for the high costs of the 2001 FMD outbreak. Critics pointed out that the Government had spent 3 billion of public money to protect meat and livestock exports worth no more than 500 million. Much of the cost came from the contiguous cull policy which led to the slaughter of millions of healthy animals.

Mr Landeg said that tests to distinguish between vaccinated and infected animals were well advanced. Contradicting remarks by the Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, earlier this year, he said the lack of a validated test would be "no bar" to vaccination, and existing tests would be used.

He said the new study had shown the value of animal movement and biosecurity controls introduced since 2001, and that it was now "much less likely" that the UK would suffer another epidemic on the scale of 2001.