A RATE relief scheme to help businesses affected by the outbreak has been derided as a sop to public opinion, in the face of big losses.

The Government has unveiled proposals to extend rate relief to businesses which could demonstrate they had lost out, with up to 50,000 firms expected to apply.

But experts claim the cost to the Government of helping abattoirs and marts - among the worst-hit businesses - will be £8,000 in total.

Even if all the firms which applied were given 100 per cent rate relief for three months it would cost the Government just £5.37m extra, compared with losses suffered by the tourism industry alone estimated at £100m a week.

Jerry Shurder, rating expert for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, said under the Government's scheme only business in certain areas and with a rateable value of less than £12,000 were eligible for help.

He said: "It is only the very smallest companies in certain areas who will benefit and this does not go nearly far enough."

He said out of England's 248 abattoirs and livestock marts only 74 are eligible, and even if they were all given help the Government would pay out an extra £8,000.

John Earle, chairman of Darlington Farmers' Auction Mart, said the scheme would exclude marts not in affected areas, but still affected by the ban on livestock movements.

He said: "This is just a sop to public opinion. It will not benefit the businesses who are affected most."

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment said about three-quarters of all businesses came within the £12,000 rateable value cut-off.

She said: "We expect up to 50,000 businesses to benefit, but we can't comment on the potential figures for certain industries."

The Government's scheme extends its share of rate relief from 75 per cent of the total to 95 per cent, with councils picking up the remainder.

But, it would still be up to local authorities to grant rate relief, with no guarantee that businesses would get a 100 per cent reduction.

l Businesses in North Yorkshire affected by the crisis are being urged to look to a council for help. Richmondshire District Council wants to hear from any who can prove genuine hardship - and will consider a cut in rates.