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No let-up in 2005

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2005 got off to a flying start when, in the first week of January, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) issued a consultation package detailing its proposals for new regulations on veterinary medicines. The regulations – which have since become law – had been drafted partly to consolidate existing rules but mainly to implement European legislation that had been agreed in Brussels in 2004. They rewrite the rule book on how medicines are authorised, classified and distributed in the UK, with significant implications for all practising veterinary surgeons, clients and their animals.

In recasting the legislation, the VMD faced two main challenges. First, it sought to maintain the breadth of medicines distribution outlets available in the UK while meeting a European requirement that all veterinary medicinal products used in food-producing animals should be prescription-only medicines. Secondly, it needed to reconcile the European requirements with the at times conflicting recommendations of the Marsh and Competition Commission inquiries into the supply of veterinary medicines in the UK. Meeting all these requirements has inevitably resulted in compromises being made, not all of which are ideal, and it remains to be seen just how well the new regulations will work in practice. A summary by the VMD of the key changes impacting on veterinary surgeons was published in VR, November 12, 2005, vol 157, pp 603-605.

In consulting on the regulations, the VMD took a pragmatic approach and demonstrated a willingness to take note of points that were made. Such pragmatism was less apparent at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which, during the course of the year, consulted on parallel legislation implementing the Competition Commission’s recommendations aimed at rectifying ‘complex monopolies’ in the market for veterinary medicines. Some of the Competition Commission’s recommendations are being implemented through the RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct but, at the end of October, its most controversial recommendation – that, for a period of three years, veterinary surgeons should offer prescriptions free of charge – became enshrined in law. The Government’s dogmatic application of the Competition Commission’s recommendations remains disheartening. As the DTI itself acknowledged, ‘the Competition Commission looked at the market for veterinary medicines rather than veterinary services’. The emphasis throughout has been on market economics, and the Government has failed to take account of the wider picture in terms of animal health and welfare.

There were plenty of reminders of that wider picture in 2005, during which attempts continued to be made to move forward with the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS), which had been published by DEFRA in June 2004. Development of the AHWS had largely been prompted by the experience of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in 2001, although its scope and ambition go much further than simply trying to prevent a similar outbreak. In February, the National Audit Office reported that good progress had been made since 2001, and that DEFRA was better prepared to deal with a serious disease outbreak than it was four years ago, largely as a result of progress with the AHWS. However, much of that progress has been made on paper, and, with changes in farming and pressures on veterinary practices, concern must remain about how well the strategy will actually work.

Much of the AHWS – such as proposals for practitioner involvement in veterinary surveillance and widespread application of veterinary farm health plans – makes good sense, but progress continues to be hampered by uncertainty in the livestock industry, difficulties in getting vets on to farms and discussions about how the strategy should be paid for.

Against this background, an initiative introduced in Scotland during the year was welcome. The Scottish initiative sought to promote veterinary farm health planning by giving farmers the option, under the Single Farm Payment Scheme introduced as a result of the CAP reforms in January, of receiving payments in return for a commitment to develop an animal health and welfare programme in conjunction with their veterinary surgeon. South of the border, DEFRA has indicated that ‘pump-priming funding’ is available for initiatives that might promote farm health planning, but has still to decide how the money will be spent (see p 826 of this issue). More initiatives of this kind are needed if the AHWS is ever to get off the ground. However, in general terms, DEFRA has made it clear that it is less inclined to pay for farm animal health: in a document called ‘Partners for success’, published in November, it reaffirmed its view that more of the costs of disease control should be borne by the industry.

The State Veterinary Service (SVS) was launched as an executive agency of DEFRA on April 1, in line with the Government’s agenda of separating the development of policy from policy delivery. As well as being significant in its own right, separating the SVS from ‘core DEFRA’ will inevitably have implications for how activities are coordinated, and how resources are deployed in the future.

DEFRA’s contingency planning against infectious disease was put to the test in July, when Newcastle disease was confirmed in imported pheasants in Surrey. The measures applied were successful and the outbreak was quickly contained. Since then, contingency planning has again been the subject of attention as a result of concerns about H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza.

H5N1 avian influenza was simultaneously identified in several south-east Asian countries in December 2003/January 2004 where, as discussed in a review published in The Veterinary Record in August, it had been circulating for some time (VR, August 6, 2005, vol 157, pp 159- 164). The disease was already of considerable concern in Asia but its confirmation in poultry in Russia in August this year, and then in poultry in Turkey and Romania, focused western minds more sharply.

Diseases like avian influenza have highlighted the need for international cooperation, an interdisciplinary approach and for investment in animal health on an international basis. This year’s BVA Congress, at the end of September, explored the whole issue of biosecurity in the context of the threat from emerging diseases and, in the circumstances, proved particularly timely. A ground-breaking joint issue of The Veterinary Record and the British Medical Journal, published in November, was equally pertinent. It examined the links between human and animal health, considering the scope for interprofessional collaboration on preventing zoonoses as well as in other areas (VR, November 26, 2005, vol 157, pp 669- 716; BMJ, November 25, 2005, vol 331, pp 1213-1280). Articles in the relevant issue of each journal complement each other, and are available free on the two journals’ websites (www.bvapublications.com,www.bmj.com).

The BVA Publications website was launched in April. As well as providing searchable access to articles in The Veterinary Record, it includes the whole back catalogue of articles published in the BVA’s CPD journal In Practice over the past 25 years, representing a significant resource for practitioners.

Animal welfare received a potential boost in May, when the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) agreed new international guidelines. In the UK, the Government’s Animal Welfare Bill was introduced into Parliament during the first parliamentary session following the General Election in May. The Bill includes important provisions aimed at preventing animal suffering and is due for its second reading in Parliament in January 2006. There was no sign in 2005 of a Bill to introduce a new Veterinary Surgeons Act, although the RCVS continued to prepare for a new Act and to press ahead with measures aimed at fulfilling its vision of how veterinary activity should be regulated in the future. At a meeting in March, the RCVS Council reaffirmed its view that a new Veterinary Surgeons Act should provide for the regulation not just of veterinary surgeons but of everyone involved in providing veterinary services and, in July, the College issued a consultation document explaining how this might be achieved. 2005 was a busy year for the RCVS. A new practice standards scheme came into effect in January and, in March, revised guidance on the provision of 24-hour emergency cover was agreed by its Council. In November, the Council agreed that CPD should be promoted as mandatory and that a postgraduate development phase (PDP) should be introduced for all new graduates from 2006/07. Compulsory CPD and the PDP are important elements of the College’s plans for lifelong education and learning among veterinary surgeons, and will ultimately be linked to a licence to practise. Full implementation of those plans will depend on a new Veterinary Surgeons Act, but it is clear from its decisions this year that the College believes that progress can be made in the meantime.

Statistics in the RCVS annual report in 2005 showed that the number of students entering the veterinary schools, and the number of graduates emerging, continues to rise, raising questions about the career paths they might follow in the future. Meanwhile, a BVA survey confirmed that many of today’s students are graduating with significant debts. The introduction of top-up tuition fees in England and Wales will add to the debts being incurred. The need to pay off their debts may in itself affect the career choices made by future veterinary graduates. It will certainly not help to encourage more veterinary surgeons to enter research, where their expertise continues to be needed.

The increasing prevalence of bovine TB continued to cause concern throughout the year, with frustration being apparent in several quarters. A revised strategy, published by DEFRA in March, gave the impression that the Government was still treading water on the issue and led to renewed calls for badger culling to be resumed. The BVA’s views on the issue were set out in a policy paper published in The Veterinary Record in October (VR, October 15, 2005, vol 157, pp 485-487). Earlier this month, the Government announced that it would be introducing premovement testing of cattle in England and Wales, together with a new compensation scheme. Acknowledging that ‘international experience has indicated that it is not possible to contain and eradicate bovine TB if its presence in wildlife is left unaddressed’, it also announced a public consultation on the principle of badger culling (see pp 823-824 of this issue).

The two diseases are very different, but efforts to eradicate BSE have been more successful. This was demonstrated in November, when, following a detailed risk assessment by the Food Standards Agency, the UK’s over-30-months (OTM) scheme was replaced with a system that allows older cattle born after July 31, 1996, to enter the food chain provided their carcases test negative for BSE. The move to BSE testing brings the UK’s arrangements into line with those in the rest of Europe, and is a measure of the progress that has been made since the OTM scheme was introduced at the height of the BSE crisis in 1996.

One way and another, a lot happened in 2005. To a large extent this reflects the breadth of veterinary activity and its central importance in many areas. There seems little reason to suspect that 2006 will be any less eventful.

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