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OV concerns

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OFFICIAL Veterinarians (OVs) play a vital role in safeguarding animal health, animal welfare and human health across Europe. It is unfortunate that, in a year in which the EC and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe have again emphasised the importance of the veterinary contribution to public health and the food chain through the 'European Veterinary Week' initiative, Defra's agency Animal Health has embarked on a process that could put the provision of OV services in Great Britain at risk.

The problem relates to Animal Health's plans to change the arrangements under which practitioner OVs are appointed. The Government does not have the capacity to carry out all OV work itself, so many of these duties are carried out by private practitioners acting on its behalf. The appointment of OVs is currently the responsibility of Animal Health and, in the past few months, the agency has shown something of a capacity for surprise. For many years, the contractual arrangement between Animal Health and practitioner OVs has been defined by a longstanding agreement between Defra and the BVA under which Animal Health negotiates a standard fees structure with the BVA that is applied to all practitioner OVs. However, in May, during the course of these negotiations, Animal Health unexpectedly announced that it intended to invite OV practices and any other potential suppliers to tender to provide such services instead, effectively heralding the beginning of the end of an arrangement which has been in place for decades (VR, May 22, 2010, vol 166, p 634).

More recently, at the beginning of August, Animal Health wrote to OVs, again with little warning, explaining that, in view of budgetary pressures, it intended to bring some of the work currently being undertaken by practitioners back 'in-house'. TB testing, which forms the largest proportion of Animal Health's expenditure, would inevitably be among the activities affected. The timing and nature of this announcement, at such short notice, has also caused concern among practices undertaking OV work, not least because of the financial implications and because many of them will have already set TB testing dates with their farmer clients into the autumn as well as ensuring that they have the resource capability to undertake the tests.

Given the history, and the implications for veterinary practices, it is not surprising that, in a video interview posted on the BVA's website last week, the BVA President, Bill Reilly, should comment that the BVA's relationship with Animal Health has become 'somewhat strained' (www.bva.co.uk). The Association has now taken the unusual step of urging its members to lobby their MPs with their concerns (see p 355 of this issue).

There is more to this than irritation at the way the issue has been handled. As well as the practical and potentially damaging consequences for practices providing veterinary services to farmers – and the implications of that for the availability of farm veterinary services in the future – there is a real concern that national disease surveillance and disease eradication efforts will be undermined. There is also the question of how the changes will affect the future ability of practices to provide the extra capacity that is needed to deal with national disease emergencies, as happened during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001, for example. In addition, there is a wide array of practical questions covering issues ranging from how services will be provided in remote areas, through how continuity will be maintained on farms, to how the tendering exercise will be conducted and on what criteria bids will be assessed. At the very least, the Government should undertake an impact assessment, so that the financial and wider implications can be evaluated.

The changes are being made at a time when departmental budgets are being cut, and when the Government has yet to clarify how it intends to share the responsibilities and costs of safeguarding animal health with farmers. In the meantime, it is by no means clear how Animal Health itself will develop over the next couple of years given the pressures of devolution and the recently announced plans that it is to be merged with the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. Given all the uncertainties, is this really a sensible time to be rushing through changes which could further disrupt activities on which so much depends?

The theme of this year's BVA Congress, to be held in Glasgow later this month, is 'Vets and the public good', and practitioner involvement in OV work must clearly be categorised as being in the public interest. With its programme of debates, clinical and non-clinical CPD, as well as a panel discussion involving the four chief veterinary officers of the UK, the congress already promises to be topical. The concerns surrounding the changes to the OV arrangements could give an extra edge to the proceedings.

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