Prime Minister Gordon Brown reassured farmers on Friday that an outbreak of foot and mouth was restricted to a limited area of Britain and promised swift compensation for those hit by the livestock disease.
The highly infectious virus has been found on two farms in southern England, forcing more than 570 animals to be destroyed and prompting the European Union and other countries to slap a ban on British meat and dairy exports.
The government said tests for the disease on a third farm nearby had proven negative. The BBC said initial tests on cattle at a fourth farm outside the disease area had also been negative, though the government did not immediately confirm it.
We have restricted the disease to a limited area of this country, Brown told reporters after a government emergency committee met to review progress in fighting the disease.
The chief veterinary officer now believes the risk of it spreading outside these areas is low if not negligible.
However, Brown said a national ban on the movement of livestock would stay in place until we are absolutely sure that we have contained and controlled the disease.
The movement ban was eased on Thursday to permit farmers outside the infected area to move animals only for slaughter.
Brown also promised swift compensation for farmers affected by the outbreak.
We will extend the compensation beyond the statutory requirements to include cleanup costs and I hope that payments will be made in the coming days to all farmers in the infected areas who have suffered these losses, he said.
Farmers say the trade curbs are costing them 1.8 million pounds ($3.6 million) a day.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
Pledging that Britain is open for business, Brown promised a campaign to promote rural tourism and said he had ordered a study into boosting the rural economy.
A severe outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 forced the slaughter of six million animals and inflicted billions of dollars of losses on farmers and the tourism industry as much of the countryside was closed to visitors.
British officials said earlier on Friday they were investigating the possibility that the disease had jumped to a farm in a new area, outside the surveillance zone, fuelling fears the disease could spread.
However, a vet who inspected calves at the farm was absolutely sure they did not have foot and mouth, farmer Laurence Matthews said.
The BBC reported initial tests found no foot and mouth, but experts were waiting for a second batch of results.
Britain's chief veterinary officer Debby Reynolds said an interim report on the outbreak found it was very likely the source of the infection was the Pirbright research centre, close to the farm where cattle were first infected, she said.
The site houses two foot and mouth laboratories -- one public and one, Merial, owned by U.S. firm Merck and French firm Sanofi-Aventis SA.
It remains unclear how the virus could have escaped from the laboratories, which say they have strict hygiene measures.
Reynolds said Britain had made preparations to vaccinate livestock as part of a contingency plan to halt the spread of foot and mouth disease, but had not ordered vaccination yet.
Foot and mouth spreads easily on the wind and causes animals to foam at the mouth and collapse.
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker and Simon Rabinovitch)