BRITAIN'S farmers faced more grim news last night after an official report predicted more than 4,400 cases of foot-and-mouth disease would be recorded by June.

The report came as the number of outbreaks reached 514 and Tony Blair was said to have ordered a nationwide extension of the controversial "firebreak" cull of healthy animals next to infected farms.

At present, the firebreak cull is only being used in two-mile areas around infected premises in heavily-affected Cumbria and southern Scotland.

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said later the scheme was still under consideration, but admitted it was his department's intention to "achieve the Prime Minister's firebreak policy".

A Ministry of Agriculture spokeswoman said last night the practicalities of employing the policy nationwide still had to be worked out.

However, the proposal immediately received support from National Farmers' Union president Ben Gill.

He insisted many farmers were looking to the Government for "extended measures" to eradicate foot-and-mouth.

"It is better to take hard action now and save outbreaks later on," said Mr Gill.

Ministers also admitted for the first time that they were prepared to consider a limited vaccination programme similar to the measures adopted in Holland.

Mr Brown said he was now taking a "hard look" at the possibility of introducing a vaccination strategy to contain the disease, although he warned that animals covered by such a scheme would later have to be culled as they could still carry the virus.

Mr Blair also stepped up the war on foot-and-mouth by instructing officials to improve slaughtering times to ensure that all livestock is culled within 24 hours of diagnosis to avoid spreading the virus.

The new efforts against foot-and-mouth came as 34 new cases were reported.

As it was disclosed that more than 480,000 animals had been slaughtered or condemned, the current outbreak - now in its fifth week - was officially declared worse than that of 1967.

Then, about 430,000 creatures were culled on more than 1,200 farms over a six-month period.

The current outbreak has proved so devastating because of the larger size of modern-day herds and flocks and the greater movement of animals around the country.

Professor David King, the Government's chief scientist, yesterday admitted the disease was "not under control" and said the new measures were needed to end the epidemic as quickly as possible.

Earlier, an official report predicted the epidemic would "continue for many months".

The ministry report, which includes forecasts from three teams of disease experts, warned that the number of cases would "rise steeply" with one team predicting 70 new outbreaks a day over the next two weeks.

Experts from London's Imperial College have also warned the Government that the virus will spread throughout Britain unless tougher measures were taken.