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THE UK Chief Veterinary Officer's annual report for 2009, which was published last month, is significant for a number of reasons. Not least among these is that it comes at a time of considerable uncertainty about how animal health and welfare are to be paid for in future, and following the election of a government which has pledged to make savings to help restore the national economy. In this respect the title of the report seems particularly relevant: for many years, the CVO's annual report has simply been called ‘Animal Health’, but this latest report is called ‘Progress through partnership’, which perhaps gives the clearest indication yet of where the future must lie.

It is also significant in that, after many years of CVOs' reports providing an annual summary of Britain's animal health status, it is the last such report that will be published. The demise of the annual report was threatened last year (see VR, September 5, 2009, vol 165, p 273) but, by popular demand, and for one year only, it was given a reprieve. In these austere economic times, it seems that publication can no longer be justified, particularly in view of the fact that most of the information it contains is available elsewhere on the internet. This may be true, but the trouble with the internet is that you need to know what to look for and when and where to look, and the loss of the annual report, which has always provided a concise, consolidated summary of developments in an easily assimilable form, is disheartening. Indeed, it can be argued that the provision of such information is even more important with the proliferation of information on the internet, and that it is particularly important in times of rapid change.

Like previous reports, the report for 2009 provides a concise record of developments up to the end of the year, along with useful statistics relating to research spending, animal welfare activity and progress with diseases such as bovine TB, BSE and scrapie. However, continuing a trend begun with the report for 2008, it places less emphasis on specific diseases, focusing instead on the structures and strategies in place to deal with them. With animal health and welfare policy being devolved, it draws attention to the approaches being adopted in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the efforts being made to coordinate them. Further sections of the report set out the reasons for government intervention in animal health and give a number of examples of working in partnership and of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy in action. Appropriately, given that this is the last report, it also points to future challenges and possible approaches to dealing with them.

Reasons for government intervention in animal health are listed in the report as protecting public health, protecting animal welfare, protecting international trade and protecting wider society. However, it is precisely to what extent the Government should and can afford to be involved in these areas that is currently so uncertain. This is not a new debate, nor is it one that is confined to the UK, but it is coming to a head in view of current economic circumstances and following the election of a government committed to reducing spending and cutting red tape. This was demonstrated in a debate on responsibility and cost sharing at the recent BVA Congress, which is reported on pp 543–544 of this issue. There may, as was suggested during the debate, be much to be gained from working in partnership, and for establishing systems of funding that are less dependent on the whims of the Treasury. However, the changes that are made must not be driven by short-term expediency, and the future of vital activities such as disease surveillance, along with the ability to respond to emergencies, must be secured.

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham earlier this week, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, indicated that, for all the changes taking place in Defra and its agencies, ‘frontline services’ would be preserved. State veterinary activity clearly counts as a frontline service, and the Secretary of State must be held to her word.

Discussing future challenges in his annual report, the CVO notes that ‘Global issues, such as climate change and the growing volume of international trade and travel, increase our exposure to exotic and emerging diseases’, and that, in the context of scarce resources, activities will have to be prioritised on the basis of risk. When it comes to animal and public health, the question for the Government is how big a risk it is prepared to take. Diseases like BSE and foot-and-mouth disease can be expensive. In the current financial situation, the Government may be wondering whether it can afford to invest in animal health. However, the real question is, can it afford not to?

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