Authorities accused of a cover-up in British foot and mouth scare

The British government has been accused of a cover-up over the foot and mouth outbreak in a research site which houses the government-backed Institute for Animal Health.

Critics say the authorities are "deliberately obscuring" the exact source of the foot and mouth outbreak in order to avoid a multimillion-pound legal claim from local farmers.

An interim inquiry into the source of the outbreak on a farm in Surrey found there was a "strong possibility" that the virus had escaped from the nearby Pirbright scientific complex, where the government-backed Institute for Animal Health is based along with a facility run by the American animal vaccine manufacturer Merial Animal Health.

Both labs were involved in handling the strain of the disease found in the infected cattle.

The report said it was impossible to tell which lab was the source of the epidemic but agricultural lawyers have voiced their suspicions about the confusion, which they say could make it almost impossible for farmers, livestock auctioneers and others in the rural economy to successfully sue for damages.

Livestock markets across the country have been shut down and the export trade has been suspended as a result of the outbreak and this situation could continue for weeks.

Experts say the total cost of the outbreak to rural businesses is likely to run into tens of millions of pounds.

The law firm Clarke Willmott, has already served papers on the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Merial on behalf of livestock exporters whose business was effectively suspended by the outbreak on August 3.

The lawyers say the source of the outbreak is being deliberately obscured and they suspect it is already known how the highly dangerous virus escaped.

DEFRA has denied any cover-up and says though it is very likely that the source of infection is the Pirbright site, there are a number of ongoing investigations trying to pinpoint the exact cause of the outbreak.

Both the Institute for Animal Health and Merial insist their bio­security measures are too tight to allow the virus to escape but some experts believe that the virus must have been released deliberately.

Staff at the Pirbright institute have apparently been checked for any possible links to animal rights groups.

Tests on calves at Manor farm in Wotton, near Dorking, Surrey, proved to be negative and the temporary three-kilometre control zone set up around the farm has been lifted.

The alarm was raised at the 2,500-acre farm last week after calves developed runny noses and swollen eyes.

The government's chief vet Debby Reynolds has warned farmers to remain vigilant as it was still possible further cases of the disease might occur.

Farmers outside the surveillance zone are already able to move their animals to slaughter, as a result of an easing of the restrictions last week and if the restrictions are eased further, farmers may also be allowed to take livestock to markets or to shows.

Although such restrictions upon movement have already been lifted in the Scottish Islands, exports will still be banned to countries outside the European Union for nearly three months.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says it has received a report about the soil samples taken from drainage systems in the laboratory complex that is thought to be a possible source of the outbreak.

The HSE has also confirmed that several lines of inquiry about the possible origins of the outbreak are being pursued including whether the virus was carried as a result of "human movement" or sabotage.

A report examining the genetic material of the virus that caused the outbreak, to hopefully establish whether it came from the government's Institute for Animal Health or the US and French-owned Merial Animal Health, is yet to be published.

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