London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's spiraling outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which economists warn may cost the farming industry up to $3.7 billion, was Thursday officially declared to be affecting all parts of the country, with the first cases emerging in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
With 31 confirmed cases in the UK as of late Thursday, there are also fears the highly contagious livestock disease may spread into the Irish Republic, where no case has been reported in 60 years. Extra troops have been deployed along the border, to ensure no meat or livestock is brought into the country from Northern Ireland.
Several European countries are on the alert for any possible signs of the virus, which is harmless to humans but can be fatal for cloven-hoofed animals. Tourists and cars from Britain are being disinfected and officials in some countries are confiscating any foodstuffs being brought in.
Reflecting how seriously the threat is being taken in Europe, more animals merely suspected of having been in contact with British livestock have already been killed in France, Germany and the Netherlands than in Britain itself.
With many animals possibly incubating the disease, the UK government's chief veterinary officer was cautioned that the situation could get much worse.
There is increasing speculation that a general election, which had been expected in April or May, may now be postponed, as people in rural areas would be unable to participate fully in a campaign.
A number of lawmakers have suggested that an election before the fall would be a problem to pull off.
Prime Minister Tony Blair had been widely expected to announce a spring election date soon, to take advantage of highly favorable opinion polls, and also to pre-empt the possibility that an economic slowdown in the U.S. could begin to have an effect on the British economy later in the year.
In another political spin-off, a powerful rural lobby group has called off a mass rally to protest government policies affecting the countryside, which had been planned for later this month in central London.
Parts of the countryside have been placed off-limits to hikers, who have been warned they face fines of up to $7,275 if they enter forbidden areas, while several major sporting and horseracing events have been cancelled. Army maneuvers have been called off in some areas, and zoos and game parks have been closed.
The Center for Economics and Business Research, after examining the results of an outbreak in 1967, estimates that the current one could cost up to $3.7 billion - in the short term affecting farmers, abattoirs and truckers, and in the longer term also having an impact on livestock producers' export markets.
The government has extended a ban on all movement of livestock in the country until at least March 16. Trade unions have already warned that if the crisis continues for another week or two, jobs will be lost in the broader meat industry.
But it is farmers themselves, already severely hit by the BSE ("mad cow") scare, an outbreak of swine fever last year, and years of financial difficulties due in part to the strength of the UK currency against the euro, who are again bearing the brunt.
Helplines are receiving large numbers of calls from distressed farmers, prompting fears that the already high suicide rate among farmers may climb even higher.
Calls from farmers relate to stress, health problems and cash-flow concerns, said Caroline Davies of the Rural Stress Information Network.
Farmers' wives were also calling to express concern about the mental state of their husbands or sons, in some cases worried they may be pushed over the edge.
The government has approved a compensation package for beef, sheep and dairy farmers, but it remains unclear exactly who will benefit and to what extent.