Foot-and-Mouth Tests Brown

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Cate Gillon / Getty Images

A sign hangs on the gate of a public footpath near a Surrey farm of sixty cattle, which has been hit by the disease foot and mouth near the village of Normandy on August 4, 2007 in Surrey, England.

Onlookers might easily mistake it for a murder scene, and the yellow tape now sealing access roads to a farm in Surrey, southwest of London, does indeed signal that a killer may again be on the loose in the U.K. Six years ago, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), an infectious illness that targets animals with cloven hooves — pigs and ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats and deer — devastated the British farming industry and British tourism and battered the reputation of Tony Blair's government. Ministers reacted too slowly when the disease was first detected and compounded that mistake by giving reassurances that quickly proved false. The lush British countryside was laced with gothic horrors as the carcasses of six and half million livestock, culled to eradicate the epidemic, burned on pyres. The total cost to the U.K. was estimated at 8.5 billion.

Now the scourge is back, and Blair's successor Gordon Brown is determined not to let it hurt his standing. On 3 August Debby Reynolds, U.K. Chief Veterinary Officer, confirmed that cattle in Surrey had tested positive. Sixty-four cattle at the site of the outbreak were slaughtered, and the farm is now ringed by two concentric zones designed to contain the contagion: a protection zone 3km (1.8 miles) wide and a surveillance zone of 10km (6.2 miles). Also inside these zones is the Pirbright Laboratory, which conducts research into FMD and other diseases of farm animals. Preliminary tests revealed that the Surrey cattle had been infected with a strain of FMD the U.K. government says is "not one currently known to be recently found in animals." It is, however, "similar to strains used in international diagnostic laboratories and vaccine production."

It is too soon to know if the science that was meant to help the farming industry has instead dealt it a new blow. Scientists are already investigating what Reynolds described as "a small number" of possible outbreaks elsewhere. Farmers and tourist chiefs pray these tests will prove negative, but are already set to suffer. A ban on exports of livestock is in place and the European Union and individual countries will introduce further restrictions on British imports. Meanwhile scare stories about FMD are beginning to circulate. The disease very rarely affects humans, but despite such assurances in 2001, many visitors canceled or curtailed trips to Britain.

This is the third crisis to test the mettle of the new government. Since Brown became Prime Minister at the end of June, he and his ministers have handled terror attacks in London and Glasgow, and serious flooding in several parts of the country. His sobersided approach has struck a chord with the electorate, and polls detect a "bounce" in support for Labour since Brown's arrival, which has fueled talk of a snap election as early as this fall to give Brown his own mandate. That's an especially tempting prospect for Labour after the Conservative opposition mishandled the flooding. Tory leader David Cameron chose to complete a fact-finding tour of Africa while his own constituency in England coped with floods.

Now Cameron has postponed planned holidays to keep abreast of the situation and Brown returned after one day of his scheduled break in southwestern England to direct the fight against FMD. In an interview with the BBC the Prime Minister promised "we are doing everything in our power to look at the scientific evidence and to get to the bottom of what has happened and then to eradicate this disease."

It's a promise he'll need to keep. The economic consequences of a bungle would be severe, and the political repercussions could be just as enduring. A general election planned for May 2001 was postponed as Blair's government struggled to get FMD under control. Although Labour won at the delayed polls, its reputation had been tarnished. That's not an outcome the new Prime Minister will be prepared to countenance.