LONDON (V)--Britain insisted March 12 it was in control of the foot-and-mouth disease devastating the farming and tourism industries despite 17 new outbreaks of the livestock virus.

The number of cases is now 183, the ministry of agriculture said, and more are suspected, including a possible second outbreak in Northern Ireland.

The vast majority of other cases are clustered around Cumbria in northwest England and Devon, in the southwest, but some have been reported in Scotland, Wales, central England and near London.

But the government insisted foot-and-mouth was under control, and rejected criticism that it had not done enough since it was reported three weeks ago.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman admitted the situation was "serious," saying it was unclear how long it would be before the outbreak was beaten.

However, he said all the right steps had been taken.

"I do not think anyone can say we have not taken this seriously. We do continue to believe it was right to bear down on this disease in the way that we have done."

He said Agriculture Minister Nick Brown had told Blair "it is not out of control, to the extent it is not an epidemic. We can say no more than that."

Brown himself said although the crisis was now of a "different order" to three weeks ago with "second- and third-wave infections," the situation was "under control."

However, "we are in for a longer haul and we have to acknowledge that," he warned.

The government's chief veterinary officer, Jim Scudamore, said the problem was concentrated in a handful of regions.

"The disease situation is such that most of these cases are linked together either by the movement of sheep or by local spread because of the movement of people, equipment or animals," he added.

A total of 155,000 animals have now been earmarked for slaughter, of which 116,000 have already been culled.

Since the crisis began three weeks ago, 935 premises have been placed under restrictions, of which just under half still remain in place.

Investigations are continuing at 159 farms and other premises.

The suspected second foot-and-mouth case in Northern Ireland is in a sheep taken to an abattoir.

So far there has not been a single instance in the Irish Republic, but the country has introduced stringent measures, even banning most sports events, to prevent damage to its agri-food sector which accounts for about 10% of gross domestic product.

Foot-and-mouth is not dangerous for humans, and only rarely kills animals, but has a huge economic impact because ailing livestock becomes worthless.

It is also highly contagious and can be transmitted by air, or on the feet or vehicles of anyone who comes into contact with an infected area.

As a result, vast swathes of countryside have been declared out of bounds, zoos, footpaths and parks closed, and scores of events cancelled or postponed, including racing's Cheltenham Festival, due to have started March 13.

"It is an emergency for farming and has been for some time," said National Farmers' Union president Ben Gill.

It is also an emergency for rural tourism, which is running some 75% below normal for the time of year, according to the English Tourist Council.

The industry is losing around 100 million pounds (150 million dollars, 160 million euros) a week, it added.

Compensation has been promised for farmers for livestock that is destroyed, but so far nothing is on offer to hoteliers and others involved in tourism.

Brown hinted that might change, telling BBC radio the "government must consider the effects on the broader rural economy and not just focus narrowly on the livestock industry."

However Blair's spokesman appeared to pour cold water on the idea, warning that compensation for tourism losses was "not on the horizon."

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