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Avoiding friction

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‘FOOT-AND-MOUTH disease review (Scotland) 2007’, which was published last week,* examines Scotland's response to last year's fmd outbreak in Surrey. As Richard Lochhead, the Scottish government's cabinet secretary for rural affairs and environment, who commissioned the report, says in the introduction, the outbreak did not see the virus reach Scotland, but the effects were felt ‘only too keenly’ throughout the country. This is the latest in a long line of reports on the Surrey outbreak, but deserves no less attention for that. Written by Professor Jim Scudamore, who was Chief Veterinary Officer for the uk during the fmd outbreak of 2001, and Mr John Ross, chairman of the Moredun Foundation, it is comprehensive and highly informative. While it focuses on the situation in Scotland, many of its recommendations are relevant to Great Britain as a whole.

Some of the most interesting observations in the report relate to devolution. The recent Anderson report on last year's outbreak (see VR, March 15, 2008, vol 162, pp 325, 326-327) pointed out that there is now more potential for divergence in animal health policies across Great Britain than there was in 2001, as policymakers in the devolved administrations react to their own national circumstances. It noted that the restrictions imposed as a result of last year's outbreak in England caused tension in Scotland and suggested that, unless some of the issues surrounding devolution are resolved, further problems could arise in the future. The Scudamore report gives more detail of the problems encountered in 2007 and makes specific recommendations aimed at putting things right.

Every effort was made by all sides to ensure that fmd policies in England, Wales and Scotland were fully aligned in 2007 but, the report says, occasional differences and misunderstandings led to ‘friction’ between the Scottish government and defra. It notes, for example, that there were a number of instances where the Scottish government was not informed of important developments ‘such as when the identity and source of the virus was confirmed’, commenting that ‘It was embarrassing for Scottish Ministers to learn about important events via the media and not directly from defra’. It draws attention to concerns expressed about Scottish representation at uk Cabinet level and also in Europe and, at an operational level, about the financial arrangements with both the Meat Hygiene Service (mhs) and Animal Health.

At the root of such issues, says the report, are outdated concordats on animal health between the uk government and the devolved administrations and, like the Anderson report, it recommends that these should be updated as a matter of urgency. In particular, it calls for an early review of the financial arrangements for funding fmd control policies and of the current situation whereby, although policymaking is devolved, most of the budgets are held by defra and spent on a gb-wide basis. It says the intention of the review should be to transfer the budgets to the Scottish government to implement its policies on the control of exotic diseases and suggests, in addition, that funding for other animal health and welfare activities, such as bse testing and for work undertaken by Animal Health in Scotland, could also be transferred from defra to the Scottish government. This would mean that, in the event of a disease outbreak, the Scottish government would have to fund the implementation of its policies from its own budget or, if necessary, approach the Treasury for additional funds. It says that it is ‘an anomaly’ that Animal Health and the mhs are responsible for delivering policies of the Scottish government while being funded by defra, and that the customer/contractor relationship with these organisations needs to be redefined.

None of this is to suggest that Scotland should go unilateral on animal health; indeed, the report emphasises that Scotland remains ‘part of the single Great Britain epidemiological unit’ and explains why the structure of the meat and livestock industry means that ‘Scottish agriculture is closely integrated into the uk economy and cannot be seen as a separate entity’. It also points out that measures to avoid costs in a future outbreak would be better focused on flexibility in animal movement restrictions than on achieving separate regional status for Scotland. However, it makes clear that the concordats need to be updated, and the budgetary and service delivery arrangements sorted out, if friction is to be avoided in the future.

The report includes recommendations on contingency plans, movement controls and the way in which scientific advice is obtained and used, drawing particular attention to the role of Scotland's recently formed Centre of Excellence for Epidemiology, Population Health and Infectious Disease Control (epic) in informing its response to the outbreak. It notes, however, that risk analysis can only be as good as the information on which it is based, and calls on the Scottish government to work with defra to ensure that current systems to collect and record animal movement information are fit for purpose and can provide information on a gb-wide basis.

There are many excellent recommendations in the report, but those relating to devolution are likely to receive the most attention. Great Britain is indeed a single epidemiological unit and it is important that disease control measures are compatible. The arrangements must be such that friction is avoided; however, given the dearth of funding for animal health, getting agreement on the transfer of budgets could cause friction in itself.

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