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THE theme of the BVA Congress held in Cardiff last week was 'Together forever?' — with the question mark being an important component of that title. After 10 years of devolution, animal health policies are becoming increasingly different in the devolved regions of the UK, raising questions about how well efforts can be coordinated. It was clear from debates at the congress that challenges exist in this and many other areas. It was also clear that the veterinary profession has a significant role to play in helping to meet these challenges, both in practical terms and in trying to influence the decisions that are made.
There was much to discuss in Cardiff, but two issues proved to be of particular concern among delegates. The first was the idea, under Defra's proposals on responsibility and cost sharing, that animal welfare should be administered separately from animal health. The other was how the UK's Pet Travel Scheme might change as a result of harmonisation of EU rules.
On responsibility and cost sharing, the Government seems determined to press ahead with establishing a new body for animal health. From presentations at the congress, it seems equally determined that responsibility for animal welfare should remain within Defra, with Defra officials making clear on more than one occasion that this was a decision that had been made by ministers, bearing in mind the considerable public interest in this subject. Many at the congress seemed unconvinced that this in itself was sufficient reason to separate health from welfare, nor were they particularly reassured by arguments that it was only policy decisions that would be separated and that delivery of welfare was something with which everyone would continue to be involved. The debate seems set to continue, and important issues need to be resolved.
The session on pet travel was useful in clarifying the European Commission's position on harmonisation, and what might need to be done if the UK and some other EU member states want to retain additional controls on pets entering the country when the derogation from EU law that currently allows them to do so comes to an end. This was particularly true in the case of the requirement to treat travelling pets against the zoonotic tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis, which could be introduced to the UK if the current requirement for treatment can no longer be applied (VR, September 26, 2009, vol 165, p 357, pp 446-448). Delegates were perplexed to learn that, for the UK and other EU countries that are considered free of the parasite to retain existing controls, it might be necessary to prove a negative, and found it difficult to accept that controls should not be retained on a precautionary basis. However, there is some room for hope, in that a recent EC proposal leaves scope for member states to apply pet travel rules that include measures against diseases other than rabies if a sufficiently strong scientific case can be made; the challenge now will be for the UK and other concerned member states to obtain sufficient data to convince the Commission within the relatively short timeframe specified.
The congress debate on devolution took the form of a panel discussion involving the chief veterinary officers for the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It made clear that there are both advantages and disadvantages associated with devolution — and also that there will be no going back. Among the suggested advantages was that it allowed a regional approach to controlling disease across the UK, with the approach adopted being tailored to local priorities and circumstances. At the same time, one country could not be played against another. Efforts needed to be coordinated and good communication was vital. Issues remain surrounding devolution of budgets and representation in Europe, some of which could take time to sort out.
Perhaps more than anything else, the congress served to emphasise that, at a time when the political, economic and disease landscape is changing rapidly, a strong professional veterinary input is needed to ensure that animal health and welfare, and also public health, is protected. This point was amply illustrated in the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture by Sandy Trees of the University of Liverpool. Professor Trees admirably defined the unique combination of skills that characterise a vet, and highlighted the contribution vets could make at every level in helping to meet current challenges, including those of climate change, emerging diseases and developing a sustainable food supply as the world's population continues to grow. However, he also expressed some concern about a danger that vets could come to be seen, and perhaps come to see themselves, simply as healthcare deliverers, and that their wider contribution could be neglected. It is in everyone's interest that that doesn't happen.