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Time for a rethink

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DEFRA'S proposals for a new independent body for animal health, introduced as part of the Government's agenda on responsibility and cost sharing and set out in a consultation document in March, have already been the subject of much debate. Rightly so, because if they are taken forward, they could result in the biggest shake-up of arrangements for safeguarding animal health in England, with knock-on effects for the rest of the UK, in decades (VR, April 4, 2009, vol 164, p 409).

The BVA supports the idea of new arrangements to reduce disease and manage disease more cost effectively, and to improve the confidence of the livestock sector and the veterinary profession in the way disease risks are managed. It also sees better partnership working between government, industry and the veterinary profession as the way forward. However, in its response to the consultation, which was submitted to Defra this week, the BVA gives the proposals a firm thumbs down. It suggests, among other things, that they could compromise the UKs ability to respond effectively to major disease outbreaks — and it calls on Defra to abandon plans to set up a new body for animal health while leaving responsibility for animal welfare with ministers.

On welfare, the BVA points out that the welfare of animals is inextricably linked to their health. It rejects the idea that the two should be separated, and argues that any new body for animal health should also be responsible for animal welfare.

With regard to disease control, it says that the proposals are unclear about the roles and responsibilities of government ministers, the Chief Veterinary Officer, the board of the proposed animal health body and others in relation to a disease outbreak, and notes that the situation is further complicated by devolution. It points out that anything that causes confusion in decision making could have disastrous consequences for farming and the rural economy, and that further fragmentation as a result of the proposals will put at risk the single-line command structure needed to respond quickly and effectively to disease outbreaks.

Among other points made by the BVA are that it may be unwise for England to introduce arrangements for responsibility and cost sharing ahead of EU proposals expected in 2011, or indeed before Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It notes that the implications of the proposed new body for animal health for horses, companion animals and animals kept in zoos and other wildlife establishments are not discussed in the consultation document, but says that these must not be overlooked or sidelined in a body with a board set up around livestock. It believes that all the skills necessary, including veterinary expertise, would need to be represented on the new body.

On the key issue of funding, it believes that the Government must continue to seek to improve animal health and welfare and maintain its commitment to disease control: the new partnership arrangements should not simply result in the costs of disease control being transferred to the industry. It rejects any suggestion that animal health is not primarily a public health issue, pointing out that many diseases have zoonotic implications and arguing that 'the whole point of the livestock sector is a wholesome and sufficient food supply' and that 'food security is a cornerstone of public health'. It believes that any cost sharing arrangements should provide farmers with an incentive for action to improve their practice and reward those who achieve good animal health and welfare outcomes, but notes that the levy system proposed would not achieve this. It further believes that the Government must continue its commitment to research on animal health and welfare, and that further investment in active and passive surveillance is needed.

Commenting on the Association's response this week, the BVA President, Nicky Paull, said, 'We're asking Defra to go back to the drawing board on responsibility and cost sharing. While we agree with the principle of sharing responsibility for managing disease with industry, we believe this is the wrong way to achieve it.'

Back to the drawing board is right. There is no doubt that more could be achieved by working in partnership, that appropriate structures should be in place and that future funding for animal health and welfare should be secured. However, animal health and welfare is too big an issue for experiments in governance. Activities need to be coordinated across the UK and plans need to be properly thought through.

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