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IT would be hard to find a silver lining in the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak of 2001, but, if there was one, it was in highlighting the importance of disease surveillance, and of contingency planning for dealing with disease outbreaks should they occur. A report this week from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) provides a useful reminder of the need to be prepared for disease outbreaks, and of the costs that can be incurred if they are not discovered quickly and controlled at the outset. The report – ‘Foot and mouth disease: applying the lessons’*– discusses progress made by DEFRA since the committee last reported on the lessons of the 2001 outbreak, in 2003. In its previous report, the committee took DEFRA to task for its handling of the outbreak, and made a number of recommendations for improvement (VR, March 22, 2003, vol 152, pp 345-346).
The PAC’s report is short and not altogether sweet, but, like the National Audit Committee, whose follow-up report on the lessons of the 2001 FMD outbreak was published in February this year (VR, February 12, 2005, vol 156, p 189), the committee believes that good progress has been made, and that DEFRA is now better prepared for an outbreak of FMD than it was four years ago.
In particular, it says that DEFRA has improved its animal health policies to reduce the risk of a further outbreak; strengthened its preparedness through enhanced contingency planning; clarified its approach to the use of vaccination; and tightened its procedures for valuing commercial animals. It nevertheless believes that further action is needed in relation to managing future outbreaks and controlling the costs incurred. With regard to cost control, it says that valuation procedures for compensation payments for pedigree and highvalue stock need to be tightened up, with valuations being benchmarked for consistency and fairness. It notes that DEFRA has yet to complete discussions with the industry about a proposed levy through which parties would share the cost of and responsibility for dealing with future disease outbreaks, and suggests that a levy system which linked contributions to standards of biosecurity could benefit the industry as well as the taxpayer. It also notes that DEFRA has still to resolve whether the cost of disinfection and cleaning after an outbreak should be funded by the taxpayer, by the industry or be shared.
On the management of future outbreaks, the committee points out that DEFRA’s contingency plans need to be consistent with those of local authorities and others, to facilitate coordination and cooperation. It says that DEFRA should establish adequate information technology systems to assist the management of future outbreaks. It further believes that, to reduce the risk of outbreaks occurring, farmers’ compliance with animal health standards should be subject to enhanced scrutiny, with inspections being targeted on the basis of risk assessments.
The PAC’s reports have, as one might expect, been primarily concerned with the huge financial costs of the 2001 FMD outbreak and ways of avoiding unnecessary expenditure on future outbreaks. Taxpayers’money needs to be spent wisely, but, apart from exercising the necessary controls, the best way of avoiding expenditure on the scale encountered in 2001 is to continually invest in safeguarding animal health and reduce the risks of disease outbreaks occurring. Whether, given the current state of play, that might usefully be achieved by imposing a levy on a farming industry that is already hard-pressed is highly questionable; in practical terms, it is likely to be counterproductive. However, the PAC, for one, is of the view that DEFRA ‘should not delay in taking forward proposals to transfer part or all of the cost of future disease outbreaks to the industry’. Transferring all of the cost would be inappropriate. There is a public interest in preventing and controlling animal diseases like FMD, as well as diseases of public health significance.
The issue of partnership between all ‘stakeholders’ is central to the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS) that was developed in the light of the 2001 FMD outbreak, and partnership – in the true sense of the word – will clearly be vital in taking this strategy forward. However, the issue of how costs should be shared has hampered progress and has still to be resolved. There is a need to strengthen surveillance, biosecurity and animal health planning, and to maintain the veterinary infrastructure necessary to support these activities. In this respect, news that DEFRA has earmarked £6 million to ‘pump-prime’ initiatives that encourage more widespread adoption of health planning (see p 567 of this issue) is welcome, and indicates that the Government has recognised that investment is needed in this area. Veterinary surgeons will be key to the health planning process, and will have a pivotal role to play in this and other areas. The AHWS has numerous components and remains ambitious, but it needs to be implemented properly if catastrophes like 2001 are to be avoided. Progress is beginning to be made, but more initiatives of this kind are needed if it really is to get off the ground.