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Treading water on bovine TB

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IT IS only three weeks since the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) expressed concern about a ‘lack of urgency’ in the Government’s approach to bovine tuberculosis (TB) (see VR, February 19, vol 156, p 221). The Government’s new strategy on the disease, which was published by DEFRA earlier this week (see pp 294-296 of this issue), will do little to persuade anyone that much has changed. To describe it as new may be to overstate the case. Like the previous strategy, it sets out the challenges presented by bovine TB,which were already considerable and have increased in the seven years since that strategy was launched. Instead of a five-point plan of action, we now have an ‘overall vision’ for tackling the disease, along with 12 strategic goals, which are described in the document as ‘aspirational’. Like the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS), of which it will form a part, the TB strategy document is strong on aspirations, but weak in terms of how they will be met.

The problem is illustrated by discussion of the goal of adopting ‘a regional approach to the control of bovine TB which will slow down and stop the geographic spread of the disease and achieve a sustained and steady reduction in disease in current high incidence areas’. This is one of the few new initiatives in the strategy, and is to be welcomed. However, the chapter on ‘Delivering the vision’ gives the impression that the Government has only just thought of it and, to all intents and purposes, will be starting from scratch. ‘We need to achieve agreement both on the definition of “regions” in the context of this approach, considering both administrative boundaries and disease incidence, and on what should happen within them… We want to explore the scope for consultation on developing disease control policies that are tailored according to disease incidence and risk… We need to reach agreement on how decisions are made and what decisions are appropriate for making at GB, country and, within that, at regional level. ‘Decisions on some of these issues will be made by a new advisory group, which will replace the existing TB Forum. The days of the ISG are also numbered, and the Government is exploring alternative means of securing scientific advice once its work is completed.

The Government intends to introduce a system of pre-movement testing of cattle to help prevent the spread of TB to new areas, on the basis that costs will be ‘shared’ with farmers. Work has already begun under the existing strategy, but detailed proposals have still to be agreed. Plans are also afoot to introduce post-movement testing in Scotland. The document emphasises that everyone involved must play their full part in implementing the strategy, which is rightly based on the principle that prevention is better than cure.

The issue of cost sharing in relation to controlling TB crops up repeatedly in the document, which makes clear, if it was not clear already, that the industry will be expected to shoulder a greater proportion of the costs. An example of this, as well as of the management-speak that suffuses the strategy, is provided by a comment in the Regulatory Impact Assessment, discussing the effects on cattle farms. Noting that most cattle farms are small businesses, it remarks, ‘The strategic framework will not in itself have an impact on these businesses, but policy measures developed within the strategic framework are likely to have a disproportionate impact on this sector.’

It seems that the Government has finally got round to thinking about how it might set about deciding whether or not to include badger culling as part of its TB control strategy, should the proactive element of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial and other research indicate that this might be effective. However, the discussion in the strategy tends to emphasise the difficulties and uncertainties in this area rather than indicate that a solution might be found. What it does make clear is that any decision will not be based on science alone: ‘In considering the evidence on badger controls, we will, as well as assessing the scientific merits of options, need to focus on costs, practicality of delivery, conservation implications and take into account wider public opinion in informing policy decisions on badger or other wildlife controls.’

The Government says it will continue to research and develop improved diagnostic procedures for bovine TB, and, although vaccine development remains a long-term option, it will actively continue with research into options for both badger and cattle vaccines. These are important and welcome commitments, to which the Government must be held.

Less welcome is its intention to move forward on plans to introduce lay TB testing. It says that supervised lay testing will provide an additional resource to meet the demands of the strategy, and that a pilot scheme using technical staff from the State Veterinary Service (SVS) will be starting this spring. It also notes that TB testing and other services provided by private practices are to be put on a contractual basis once the SVS becomes an Agency in April. The Government acknowledges that TB testing plays a significant role in maintaining the presence of large animal practices in some areas of the country, and the importance of practitioners to disease surveillance and the AHWS generally. At the same time, it proceeds with policies that could see the necessary practice infrastructure undermined.

Few would deny that bovine TB is a complex disease for which there is no single solution, or that policy development is a continuing process. Nevertheless, the new strategy is disappointing: it gives the impression that, after seven years, the Government is still treading water, and that it is trying to distance itself from a problem that it would rather wasn’t there.

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