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Breaking the deadlock

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A DEPRESSING, albeit predictable, consequence of the decision by Mr Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State at defra, to rule out badger culling as a means of controlling bovine tuberculosis (tb) in England is that opinions have become more divided and positions more entrenched. The extent of the current impasse is revealed in the Government's uncompromising response to a recent report on bovine tb from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efraCom), in which it robustly defends the approach it is taking. Somehow the deadlock between the Government and farmers needs to be broken. If it is not, the outcome will be a further worsening of the situation with regard to tb. Given that the arguments about tb have become linked into the debate on responsibility and cost sharing, there must also be concern about the implications for efforts to develop appropriate policies for dealing with other diseases, and for safeguarding farm animal health and welfare generally.

The Government's response* was published last week and refers to a report from the efraCom at the end of July. This took the Government to task over a number of aspects of its strategy on tb, as outlined by Mr Benn in a statement to mps on July 7, and described in more detail in a response to an earlier report from the efraCom (see VR, July 12, 2008, vol 163, pp 33, 34; July 26, 2008, vol 163, pp 98-99; August 9, 2008, vol 163, p 165). In particular, the committee said that the Government was unwise to put all its eggs into one basket by focusing its energies and funding on the long-term goal of vaccine development and that ‘there is little in the Government's strategy, beyond the current policy of surveillance, testing and slaughter, to tackle the disease in the short term’.

An overriding message from the Government's response is that it has no intention of reversing its decision on badger culling. This is made clear in a discussion of the factors considered in reaching the decision, including discussion of why proposals for a cull over a large area put forward by the National Beef Association and the National Farmers' Union were rejected. While the Government has indicated that it might need to revisit its policy in exceptional circumstances, it is unable to say what these exceptional circumstances might be. It does state, however, that ‘They would not be an application to carry out a large-scale coordinated cull, even with a commitment to sustained delivery and funding from farmers.’

The Government seems equally disinclined to introduce any further controls on cattle unless the industry is involved in any decisions that are made. In his statement to mps in July, Mr Benn acknowledged that it would be possible to strengthen cattle controls, but pointed out that this would come at high cost. Whether this would be worthwhile was, he said, ‘as much, if not more a question for the industry as it is for government’ and he therefore intended to set up a new Bovine tb Partnership Group to help develop a joint plan for tackling the disease.

In its response to comments in the efraCom report, the Government rejects the idea that this is ‘opting out of leadership’ and ‘subcontracting important decisions’ on tb. On the contrary, it says, ‘Leadership in tackling bovine tb is not for government alone, nor is it achieved by government taking unilateral decisions about new cattle control measures.’ It points out that it could impose new cattle controls and even new costs on the industry but that this is not the way to establish measures that will be effective in ‘the long battle against bovine tb which lies ahead’. The Bovine tb Partnership Group, it says, is intended to be just that, allowing government and the industry to work together on difficult decisions.

On vaccination, the Government acknowledges that this is a long-term project and that significant hurdles would need to be overcome before a cattle vaccine could be introduced. Discussing on-farm biosecurity, it notes that every farm is different in terms of the husbandry measures that might be effective in preventing the disease and that a pragmatic approach is needed for many measures related to minimising risks. This is an area where veterinary practitioners can contribute.

The Government shares concerns expressed by the efraCom that discussions and decisions on cattle-based measures could be delayed if the industry is not prepared to participate in the Bovine tb Partnership Group and, with farmerse' representatives having indicated that they will not be involved, there is clearly a danger of this happening. At the same time, the Government's response makes clear that it is in no particular hurry to do anything more unless the industry is involved, stating that ‘what happens next and how quickly we move forward depends on the industry itself’. It is unfortunate that the Government should have chosen to test its agenda on responsibility and cost sharing on a disease which is so difficult to deal with and on which feelings have been running so high for so long, and it will be even more unfortunate if this skews the wider debate on responsibility and cost sharing. It is also unfortunate that farmers are reluctant to be involved. Nobody can benefit from this kind of stand-off. Tackling tb is not going to be easy, not least in view of the limited control options available. However, there might just be something to be gained, and there is certainly nothing to be lost, if all those with an interest in controlling the disease can keep talking to each other.

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