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Seeking true partnership

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NEWS that defra and the devolved administrations are to abandon routine brucellosis testing of beef herds in Great Britain from April this year (see Letters, p 414 of this issue) might be tempered if one could be sure that the money saved will be reinvested in veterinary services or safeguarding animal health. Unfortunately, however, there is no indication at this stage that this will be the case. The only thing that can be said for certain is that the income of practices that carry out such testing will be reduced — and given that provision of farm animal veterinary services is already proving difficult in some parts of the country where beef cattle are extensively reared, the result will be to help make a bad situation worse.

It is nearly three years since, after 18 months of consultation, the Government launched its Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws) with a view to providing a framework for ‘a lasting and continuous improvement in the health and welfare of kept animals while protecting society, the economy and the environment from the effects of animal diseases’ (VR, July 3, 2004, vol 155, pp 1, 2-5), and even longer since the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in a report on the availability of vets and veterinary services, expressed concern that a shortage of large animal practitioners could put that strategy at risk (VR, November 1, 2003, vol 152, pp 541, 542-544). The ahws emphasises that vets are ‘uniquely placed to help promote animal health and welfare’ and that they ‘should be at the forefront of the development and delivery of specialist and proactive services such as animal health planning’. It also points out that they have a vital role in the education of animal keepers by providing information on the latest research and best practice. Meanwhile, the related Veterinary Surveillance Strategy states that practitioners have ‘a key role in both the ‘sifting’ and reporting of surveillance data, and interpreting the implications of surveillance outputs for their clients’. It stands to reason that, if vets are to fulfil these roles they need to be available and able to get on to farms, and that practices are there to provide the services required. So far, however, short of expressing the hope that it will happen, and that somebody else will pay for it all, the Government appears to have no coherent strategy for ensuring that the necessary practice infrastructure is maintained. Whatever the possible justification on economic or animal health and public health grounds, the announcement on brucellosis testing provides another example of this, and the short notice given will do nothing to help the practices affected which, like other businesses, need to plan ahead. A fundamental principle of the ahws is partnership. Partnership is usually considered to be a two-way process. Unfortunately, announcements like this do nothing to dispel the idea that the kind of partnership the Government has in mind is decidedly one way.

In England, the task of driving forward the ahws has been assigned to the England Implementation Group (eig). In a report last December, the eig expressed concern that, to secure animal health and welfare objectives, access to veterinary services must be available to all. It also noted that the veterinary profession had ‘clear difficulties in finding financially viable ways forward for some of its members, particularly in areas where farming incomes, and client density, are low’. It said it was keen to encourage and support the development of a coherent strategy for the veterinary profession and, with this in mind, to explore positive solutions that could be taken forward ‘largely by the profession itself’.

The bva, too, is keen to find solutions and, in a recent presentation to the eig, outlined a number of ways in which farm animal practices are developing services, including farm health planning, to help take the ahws forward. It also proposed some pragmatic solutions that the Government should consider if it wishes to maintain a meaningful veterinary presence across all areas of the uk. Veterinary businesses will survive in areas of the country where it is economically viable for them to do so; in others, alternative solutions must be found. This should involve strengthening, not weakening, the relationship that exists between the private and state veterinary sectors, and perhaps expanding some of the work that practices undertake on behalf of the State Veterinary Service (svs) — or ‘Animal Health’, as the svs is about to become known (see News, p 386 of this issue). In the meantime, there remains an urgent need for the SVS to clarify its future relationship with local veterinary inspectors (lvis) so that practices are in a position to plan ahead.

The importance of maintaining a meaningful veterinary presence across the uk should not be underestimated by the Government. It is fundamental to efforts to safeguard animal health, public health and animal welfare, and a prerequisite if the aims of ahws are to be met.

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