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THE announcement by the Secretary of State at defra, Mr Hilary Benn, that he had decided to rule out badger culling as an option for controlling bovine tuberculosis (tb) in England was not altogether surprising. What was surprising, and also worrying, was that, in his statement on bovine tb to Parliament last month, the Secretary of State made no commitment to strengthening the controls applied to cattle, particularly in view of the importance attached to such controls by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle tb. Mr Benn acknowledged that it would be possible to strengthen cattle controls, but pointed out that this would come at a 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 to develop a joint plan for tackling the disease (see VR, July 12, 2008, vol 163, pp 33, 34).
Since Mr Benn made his statement, more details of the Government's position have become available through its response to recommendations from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (efraCom), whose report on bovine tb in February (see VR, March 1, 2008, vol 162, pp 258-259) helped spur him into reaching a decision on badger culling. The efraCom has recently published the Government's response, while making some additional comments of its own. In particular, the select committee criticises the Government for downplaying the significance of the disease, and says that it is ‘extremely disappointed’ that the response is so tentative in many areas. It welcomes Government plans to invest in vaccine research but notes that this is a long-term exercise and suggests it is ‘unwise’ of the Government to put all its eggs in one basket. On plans to establish the Bovine tb Partnership Group, it accuses the Government of ‘opting out of leadership of the issue, and subcontracting important decisions with high cost implications’ (see VR, July 26, 2008, vol 163, pp 98-99).
Setting aside the badger culling issue, which the Government, for one, is clearly keen to do, the Government's response to the efraCom's report does not make for comfortable reading. More than any document so far, it demonstrates the Government's determination to limit spending on animal health and to press ahead with its agenda on responsibility and cost sharing, even though the ground rules have still to be agreed. It is unfortunate that the Government seems ready to test this agenda on a disease which, while undoubtedly costly, is so difficult to deal with and on which, largely because of the way the badger issue has been handled, opinions are so divided. There is a danger of opinion becoming even more polarised, and there must be concern, too, that continuing controversy over the badger culling issue could poison discussions on other diseases where a partnership approach is needed. This must be avoided, in relation to bovine tb as well as other diseases. The last thing that anyone needs, even for the shortest of periods, is some kind of leadership vacuum, where no-one is prepared to take responsibility for animal health.
The extent of the Government's reluctance to spend more on cattle controls is highlighted by its response, which makes clear that it feels that further investment in increased testing using the tuberculin skin test or the interferon-γ test, or a combination of both, is unlikely to be cost effective. It notes that testing regimes have already been strengthened but that, because of the slow-moving and cyclical nature of the disease, it will be some years before the effects of this can be evaluated.
So what next? Having spent nearly £50 million and waited 10 years before reaching a decision on whether to cull badgers, the Government seems unlikely to change its mind on this issue in the near future. Its decision to commit £20 million to vaccine research is welcome, but even the Government admits that the outcome cannot be guaranteed and that oral badger vaccines are unlikely to be available before 2014 and cattle vaccines before 2015. Beyond the commitment to vaccine research there is remarkably little that is new in the response, although the Government says its strategy remains to reduce the spread of the disease and to prevent it becoming established in new areas. It recognises that there are limited tools available for reducing the risk of infection from badgers, but says it wants to use the new Bovine tb Partnership Group to discuss with industry representatives what additional measures might be taken both to reduce the risk of disease spread and to tackle disease in endemic areas. It also wants to explore what practical steps could assist farmers in managing the impact of living under disease restrictions; for example, by providing incentives for biosecurity or making it easier for farmers to market their cattle. It does not rule out the option of further controls on cattle, but the clear implication of its response to the efraCom is that it will be up to farmers to decide on what measures might be effective and whether they want to pay for them.
There is little in the response that is likely to appeal to farmers, but the options do need to be explored. In particular, it will be important to see what more can be achieved at a local level, by farmers working in conjunction with their veterinary surgeons. A useful starting point might be to look again at on-farm biosecurity which, as a recent article in this journal indicated, may not have received as much attention as it deserves (VR, July 26, 2008, vol 163, pp 107-111). In the meantime, the efraCom has raised some pertinent questions about the Government's response, which ministers must answer.