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Tender issues

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No ONE could pretend that negotiations between the BVA and Animal Health on terms and conditions for private practitioners carrying out Official Veterinarian (OV) duties have been going smoothly of late. even so, given the history, and the time and effort that has been devoted to the negotiations, the announcement by Animal Health last week that it intends to develop a new way of procuring professional veterinary services - in particular, that it will be inviting all current oV practices, as well as any other potential suppliers, to tender to provide such services (see p 635) - was quite unexpected. How it will set about this remains to be seen. However, the announcement can be said to mark the beginning of the end of an arrangement that has served the country well for many years, and the start of a new era in the relationship between private practitioners and the state.

Practitioner OVs are appointed by the Government to perform work on its behalf. The biggest component of that work is testing for bovine TB, although they also play an important role in providing the health certification that is necessary for international trade in animals and animal products. The contractual arrangement between Animal Health and practitioner OVs is currently defined by a memorandum of understanding between Defra (formerly MAFF) and the BVA under which Animal Health negotiates a standard fees structure with the BVA which is applied to all practitioner OVs. The memorandum of understanding dates from 1994, but the arrangement goes back many decades.

In 2007, Animal Health embarked on an OV Reform Programme ‘seeking to improve the relationship that exists between Animal Health and oVs by exploring the introduction of a new agreement between the two parties’. Since then, negotiations about how fees should be set and how the arrangements might be updated have gone through various twists and turns but, with this latest announcement, the goalposts have moved significantly. In its letter to stakeholders last week, Animal Health makes clear that it intends to move to a system of competitive tendering and ‘develop options that will in future allow work to be awarded in a manner which better demonstrates value for money, offers more assurance of the quality of the service performed, and is fully compliant with laws governing public procurement’. It wants to move forward ‘in a way that provides a smooth transition to a new approach, whilst retaining the services of sufficient practitioners to deliver the required policy objectives’. It states that while achieving value for money will be ‘a consideration’ in this process, it will not compromise on the quality of the service provided.

A timetable for the introduction of new arrangements has still to be decided, but a memo circulated within Animal Health and government departments last week leaves little room for doubt about its determination to move forward. Dated May 12, this states that the current procurement model is ‘no longer deemed fit for purpose, being able to demonstrate neither value for money nor assure the quality of service provided’ and that it ‘fails to comply with public procurement legislation which requires open competition’. It says that Animal Health is ‘seeking to work collaboratively with the veterinary profession, whilst being resolute in the need to introduce a new procurement model’. However, apparently anticipating that the plans might prove controversial, and that some practices might withdraw their services, it also states that ‘In the event of a coordinated withdrawal of services, Animal Health would implement mitigation measures which would include procuring veterinary services from specialist employment agencies, as may happen in the event of a serious exotic disease outbreak.’ Discussions are already taking place with new and existing agency suppliers with the aim of awarding contingency contracts by June 2010.

The changes will clearly have implications for practices undertaking OV work, potentially affecting employment and provision of veterinary services in areas of low livestock density. They will also have implications for disease surveillance, which is important both in itself and in the context of the UK's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. As far as bovine TB is concerned, in its election manifesto, the Conservative party described bovine TB as ‘the most pressing animal health problem in the UK today’. It seems odd that Animal Health should be seeking to impose such a radical and potentially disruptive change to the basis on which TB testing work is undertaken at a time when progress, cooperation and partnership are needed as never before.

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