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DEVOLUTION has always allowed scope for England, Scotland and Wales to adopt different policies on animal health and welfare. There was an example of this in 2005, when Scotland took a lead by making use of the Common Agricultural Policy reforms to introduce a scheme aimed at encouraging the uptake of veterinary farm health planning. There was another example last year, when England, Scotland and Wales took different positions on the docking of dogs' tails. Devolved decision making takes place on a daily basis, so it is inevitable that policies will diverge. However, the process is accelerating and, in recent weeks, seems to have moved into a different gear.
The recent announcement by the Welsh Assembly Government of plans to eradicate bovine tuberculosis (tb) is one example; the Scottish Government's announcement last week of plans for a subsidised, compulsory vaccination programme against bluetongue is another (see p 494 of this issue). Add to this the fact that the Welsh Assembly Government recently launched its own consultation on responsibility and cost sharing (see p 494) and, for all the vision set out in the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, it becomes hard to form a clear idea of where animal health policy across Great Britain is heading.
The Welsh Assembly Government plans a £27 million push against bovine tb, with additional tests on cattle and a pilot, targeted, intensive cull of badgers in a tb hotspot area. Although deplored by wildlife conservation groups, the proposed badger cull is likely to be welcomed by local farmers, and looked on enviously by farmers in other areas of Great Britain where the disease is endemic, albeit that the details have still to be worked out. However, the announcement may be less than welcome in defra, where ministers have still to make up their minds on the badger culling issue. The Welsh initiative will certainly add to the pressure on the Secretary of State, Mr Hilary Benn, to reach a decision soon and, given the close proximity of the two countries, the challenge now will be to come up with a package of measures which is both politically acceptable and compatible.
On vaccination against bluetongue, it is clear that Scotland is taking a different approach from England, which, having placed an early order for vaccine, is relying on a voluntary campaign to achieve the 80 per cent or more vaccination cover that is necessary. According to last week's announcement, subject to disease developments, a compulsory vaccination programme could be in place in Scotland this winter. Disease solutions must be practical and appropriate to local circumstances and it can be argued that it doesn't matter what approach is taken so long as the required result is achieved. However, diseases do not respect national boundaries and with bluetongue, in particular, achieving the necessary level of protection will be vital. Despite devolution, Great Britain remains a single epidemiological unit and diseases need to be dealt with accordingly. In this respect, control measures in England, Scotland and Wales are interdependent and there is clearly potential for tensions to arise if, rightly or wrongly, any one country should be felt not to be playing its full part.
Reference to the kind of problem that might arise was made in the recent review, by Dr Iain Anderson, of last year's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (fmd) in Surrey (see VR, March 15, 2008, vol 162, pp 325,326-327). Comparing the way that the outbreak was dealt with with the handling of the fmd outbreak of 2001, Dr Anderson noted that there was more potential for divergence in 2007 in the response across Great Britain to an England-only outbreak, as policymakers in the devolved administrations reacted to their own national circumstances. He also drew attention to some of the difficulties encountered in the devolved administrations and a feeling, certainly during the second phase of the outbreak, that policies applied to the south of England were having ‘a disproportionate effect’ in Scotland and in Wales.
As things stand, an overarching concordat exists between the uk Government and each devolved administration, outlining how they will work together on animal health at a strategic level. This is supported by working-level concordats on specific issues. However, Dr Anderson reported, the animal health policy concordats are out of date. He also pointed out that devolution of policy, but not operations, could cause tension in the future. ‘As things stand, for any future [fmd] outbreak in Scotland or Wales only, policy would be decided by Scottish or Welsh ministers, while operations would be delivered by Animal Health, funded by defra. This would leave scope for disagreement if a Scottish or Welsh policy decision were to have significant cost implications for defra.’ These, clearly, are complex issues but, as Dr Anderson pointed out, they need to be addressed urgently.
None of this is to ignore disease control in Northern Ireland. However, in epidemiological terms, Northern Ireland is separated from the rest of Britain by the Irish Sea and, together with the Irish Republic, has recently launched a consultation on an animal health and welfare strategy to cover the whole of Ireland (VR, March 29, 2008, vol 162, p 391).
One of the benefits of devolution is that policies can be adapted to local circumstances. At the same time, when it comes to animal health, efforts need to be coordinated and compatible. Increased divergence on animal health policy may be inevitable, but this makes it all the more important that policies are developed in a complementary manner, taking proper account of the epidemiological whole.