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FOOT AND MOUTH INSURANCE FEARS

 Westcountry farmers are bracing themselves for the possibility of having to
pay new disease insurance premiums to cover the cost of a future foot and
mouth outbreak, under Government plans that are expected to be announced
next week.

Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett is due to make a statement to MPs
outlining the Government's formal response to the "Lessons Learned" inquiry
into last year's foot and mouth disaster.

Among the proposals she is expected to put forward are plans to force
farmers to share the cost of any serious disease outbreak in the future,
either through a private insurance scheme or a disease levy.

Last year's disaster cost the taxpayer a total of 2.7 billion - much of it
wasted, according to the National Audit Office. The Treasury is determined
that the Government should not carry the full cost of any future outbreak.

But there are concerns within the insurance industry about both the scale of
the risk and the ability of farmers to pay the premiums needed to cover it
and it is likely that the Government will have to underwrite at least half
of the cost of any future outbreak. Ian Johnson, South West spokesman for
the National Farmers' Union, said farmers could ill afford another hefty
bill at a time of continuing economic crisis in agriculture.

He said the Government should instead concentrate its efforts on tightening
controls on illegal imports which are thought to have been the source of the
outbreak

He added: "It would be extremely unreasonable for the Government to shift
its responsibility on to the backs of others. I don't think farmers could
afford it and I am not even sure that insurers would underwrite it, given
that it is well known how wide open we still are to these things coming in
again."

Any move to introduce compulsory insurance would require primary legislation
and it is not known whether there will be room in the next legislative
session, which is due to be announced in the Queen's Speech later this
month. Mrs Beckett is also expected to announce a range of measures to
control costs in any future outbreak, such as fixed fees for valuers and
procurement training for an emergency team of officials.

She will confirm that the Government will introduce an immediate animal
movement ban once a case of foot and mouth is confirmed and that the Army
will be notified. She will also confirm that the damaging blanket closure of
footpaths seen last year will not be repeated, with only footpaths in the
immediate vicinity of infected farms shut down.

Another controversial measure is the electronic tagging of all sheep to make
it easier to trace sheep movements.

Mrs Beckett will also confirm that a culling strategy - including some
contiguous culling - will remain at the heart of disease control strategy.
But emergency vaccination is also likely to be brought forward as a "front
line" weapon in any future outbreak.