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Changes afoot

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NEWS that the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) is planning to rationalise its regional laboratory testing services is worrying in its own right and also because it highlights uncertainty about how the agency might develop in the future. It is only two weeks since this journal commented on the AHVLA's Corporate and Business Plan for 2011-2012 as well as some of the challenges facing the agency, which was formed in April by merging the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and the agency Animal Health. The corporate plan noted among other things that the merger provided ‘a new, wider opportunity to change the way we do things – to provide a more cost-effective service and to create more flexible and robust working methods’ and that ‘The body that leaves its first year will look very different to how it was at the start of the year’ (VR, August 27, 2011, vol 169, p 216). The question, for both those who work for and rely on the agency, is just how different a body it will be.

Under plans drawn up by the agency, laboratory services work would no longer be undertaken at eight of the 16 sites in the AHVLA's network of laboratories, with the work being transferred to the other laboratories in two phases. In the first phase, laboratory services work would cease at Thirsk, Langford and Truro by the end of March 2012; in the second, it would stop at Preston, Carmarthen, Aberystwyth, Luddington and Winchester by the end of March 2013. The AHVLA's intention is that ‘laboratory services workgroups’ would be retained at Penrith, Shrewsbury, Starcross, Bury St Edmunds, Sutton Bonington, Newcastle, Weybridge and Lasswade.

The AHVLA said this week that the proposal does not affect other services, including veterinary surveillance work that is undertaken at all 16 of its network sites. It also said that the changes do not imply or rely on site closures to generate savings. ‘Just because a site will no longer carry out lab testing does not mean that it is at risk of closure. Other laboratory functions are carried out across AHVLA's laboratory network, for example, veterinary surveillance work, and these proposals do not include any changes to these work areas.’ It said it expected a decision on the proposal in the next two to three weeks.

The organisational changes being proposed by the AHVLA may not concern its veterinary surveillance work directly. Nevertheless, without more detail, it is hard not to be concerned about the practical impact of the changes, as illustrated by a letter on this subject by Paul Roger and others on p 291 of this issue. First, there may be logistical issues associated with getting samples tested. Secondly, there are the potential consequences as in-house scientific expertise is lost or transferred elsewhere.

The importance of disease surveillance was highlighted in a review of progress in implementing the UK's Veterinary Surveillance Strategy, which was published by Defra in February this year. This provided a good explanation of why surveillance is so necessary and also suggested that good progress had been made since the strategy was agreed in 2003. Among other things, it drew attention to the importance of scanning surveillance, backed by a quality-assured laboratory diagnostic service, for detecting new, emerging and exotic diseases (VR, February 12, 2011, vol 168, pp 144, 145).

Anxiety about the future is by no means alleviated by the fact that the reorganisation of the AHVLA's laboratories is being planned against a background of spending cuts and changing priorities in government. Managing with fewer resources and working in partnership with the private sector and others is an overarching theme across government and, as the Chief Veterinary Officer remarked in an article in this journal in March this year, ‘There will be many changes to the way animal health and welfare policy is delivered over the coming months and years and maintaining those things that only government can do, while managing within reduced resources, is crucial’ (VR, March 26, 2011, vol 168, p 318). The AHVLA fulfils a wide range of functions in relation to animal and public health, and it is in everyone's interest to see that its capability is maintained. With news of the changes having emerged only last week, and the agency committed to a programme of change over the next six months and beyond, there has to be concern about what other changes might be in store.

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