AN emergency operation to halt a new epidemic of foot and mouth disease swung into action today as farmers reeled at the confirmation of a fresh outbreak.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown cancelled his holiday after being told the disease had been found on a farm near Guildford, Surrey, and will chair a second emergency Government meeting at the Cabinet Office this morning.
Meanwhile a nationwide ban on the movement of all sheep, cattle and pigs was put in place.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that a three kilometre ''protection zone'' and a 10 kilometre ''surveillance zone'' had been imposed around the farm.
A spokesman refused to give its exact location, but a graphic on the Defra website showed the centre of the zones to be between Guildford and Aldershot.
The outbreak raised the spectre of the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, which brought chaos to Britain and left farming and tourist industries devastated.
It led to the slaughter of between 6.5 and 10 million animals, ruined many farmers and rural businesses and is estimated to have cost the country up to £8.5 billion.
The Defra spokesman said last night: ''Following an investigation of suspected vesicular disease by Animal Health on a holding near Guildford in Surrey, laboratory results have this evening indicated that the Foot and Mouth Disease virus is present in samples from cattle on the premises.
''On the basis of initial laboratory results, Debby Reynolds, UK Chief Veterinary Officer, has confirmed Foot and Mouth Disease.'' All cattle on the farm are to be killed, he said.
He added: ''Nationally no animal movements are allowed except under licence, controls are in place on movement of animal carcasses, animal gatherings, shearing and dipping are restricted, and all farms must increase levels of biosecurity.'' The farm has been under restrictions since late on Thursday evening when symptoms were reported to the local animal health office.
The Government's Cobra emergency contingencies committee met last night to discuss the outbreak, with Mr Brown taking part by phone from his holiday in Dorset.
Ms Reynolds stressed that it was too early to tell how serious the outbreak could be.
She said of the Cobra meeting: ''We looked at the situation, we looked at the immediate response and we looked at how that would potentially emerge over coming days and weeks and we noted that both the latter aspects are extremely uncertain.'' She insisted that while there had been a few cases where the disease had transferred to people, there was no danger to human health.
The government had considered the role vaccination may play in coping with a possible outbreak, she said.
Peter Kendall, the President of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said he had ''enormous concern'' about the situation.
He welcomed the decision by Mr Brown and Environment Minister Hilary Benn to return from their holidays to deal with the outbreak.
Mr Kendall said that a particular worry was that the livestock industry was already depressed.
''The livestock sector - beef and sheep - are still struggling very badly. This will be a major disappointment to the industry if it was a large outbreak.'' Tim Bonner, spokesman for the Countryside Alliance, said: ''Farmers around the country will be hoping and praying that this is an isolated incident and that the disease is not already widespread, because last time when we found out about it, it was already everywhere.
''We hope and pray that the lessons from last time have been learned. The handling of the crisis in 2001 was an unmitigated disaster.'' Shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, Peter Ainsworth, whose East Surrey constituency is not far from the site of the outbreak, said: ''This will be a matter of grave concern to the farming industry and the rural community and those who enjoy the countryside.
''The last thing we need is a repeat of the horrific images that blazed across the world in 2001.'' Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of microbiology at Aberdeen University, told BBC2's Newsnight: ''Speed is of the essence here. We have got to really stop this virus spreading, obviously first of all to stamp it out in the locality where it has been identified and then see whether the virus has got anywhere else.
''This was what happened in 2001 - the animals had been moving about the country incubating the disease and before we knew where we were there were virus outbreaks from Cumbria to Devon.
''This is something that has to be avoided at all costs, because once it gets as well established as that, it is really very, very difficult to stamp out as we found out to our cost in 2001.''