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CONTINGENCY planning in the UK for foot-and-mouth disease and other infectious disease outbreaks has improved significantly since the FMD outbreak in 2001. Remarking on this in a review of the Government's handling of the more recent FMD outbreak in Surrey in 2007, Sir Iain Anderson commented that contingency planning had undergone ‘a stepwise change in quality’ since 2001. Sir Iain also conducted the ‘lessons to be learned’ inquiry into the 2001 outbreak, so he should know.

One reason things have improved is that, as well as having been put to the test in various real disease outbreaks over the past 10 years, contingency plans are tested regularly through simulation exercises. The most recent of these – ‘Exercise Silver Birch’, dealing with a hypothetical FMD outbreak – was carried out in November last year, and the official report on the outcome has just been published.* The report describes a number of successes, but also identifies a number of problems, listing 44 ‘lessons’ in total. Some of these lessons can be considered as new, while others seem depressingly familiar.

Notable among the issues identified was the need for Defra's agency Animal Health to be able to find the extra personnel – particularly veterinary personnel – that would be needed to deal with a large-scale outbreak. The report states that ‘Measures are already in place for bringing in additional resources, including contracts for temporary staff, contingency Official Veterinarian appointments and the International Animal Health Emergency Reserve but arrangements for bringing in private vets have not yet been finalised.’

Finding enough vets to help deal with the disease proved a problem in the initial stages of the FMD outbreak in 2001 and would again have been a problem in 2007 if the 2007 outbreak had not been quickly identified and contained. The report on Exercise Silver Birch suggests that it is still a problem and that the difficulties could be compounded if emergency vaccination is employed, because the vets needed to do this would have to be drawn from the same pool; vets will also be needed to help keep on top of ‘business as usual tasks’ such as TB testing. Sir Iain Anderson recommended in 2007 that preplanning was needed on how Defra and Animal Health would train and deploy the much larger number of staff that would be needed under a worst-case scenario, and it really does seem time that this matter is resolved.

Issues were identified, too, with regard to internal communications, the clarity of some roles, and communication with external stakeholders and the media. There were also problems with IT systems (including problems with connectivity) and in obtaining accurate information about animal movements.

The exercise also tested arrangements for coordinating activities in England, Scotland and Wales. Here, the report suggests that, while communication generally worked well, ‘there were issues around the impact of decisions being taken in one Administration which affected industry in another’ and that responses need to be better coordinated. While obviously essential, such coordination could continue to present challenges, particularly now that animal health budgets have been devolved.

Regarding emergency vaccination, the report identifies a need for everyone involved to ‘review and refine current policies on use of vaccination, to consider the practicalities of its operational implementation and to fully understand the implications’. These issues were discussed in more detail at a meeting last week at the Moredun Research Institute near Edinburgh (see VR, March 19, 2011, vol 168, p 284).

One worrying observation made in the report is that ‘Several operational partners flagged that the impending changes in the delivery landscape resulting from the Comprehensive Spending Review and the review of arm's-length bodies would impact on their ability to respond in the future’. Viruses like FMD virus are unlikely to be sympathetic to the consequences of the Government's plans to reduce the economic deficit so plans may have to be modified to reflect the changing circumstances of the many operational partners involved.

Exercises like Silver Birch must continue to be held at regular intervals to ensure that contingency plans are workable and up to date. This becomes all the more important at a time when the arrangements for delivering animal health and welfare are changing rapidly; some of the changes currently taking place are discussed by the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer in an article on pp 318–319 of this issue.

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