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Changing relationships

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IN an article on pp 327–329 of this issue, Gareth Enticott and others discuss how a shift in the prevailing political ideology towards neoliberalism is changing the veterinary profession's relationship with government in the UK and elsewhere. On pp 321322 we report developments which could be seen as a fairly fundamental example of this process in action, as the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) launches consultations on tendering for TB testing in England and on developing new working relationships with farm animal vets. In a separate but related development, the AHVLA has also issued an invitation for businesses to tender for the provision of veterinary reserve personnel and/or veterinary experts to help meet demands during exotic disease outbreaks. The arrangements under which private practitioners have traditionally undertaken work on behalf of the state have been in place for decades. Now, they look set to change significantly.

Having been flagged up in August (VR, August 27, 2011, vol 169, p 219), the two consultations, which are being conducted online, run from September 19 to October 7, so there is not much time for comment. The detailed invitation to submit tenders for the provision of veterinary reserve personnel was issued on September 19, without views being sought beforehand. The intention, the AHVLA has said, is that the reserve ‘will supplement, not replace, AHVLA's current arrangements (both formal and informal) with Official Veterinarians and other private vets’, and tenders have been invited by October 26.

The consultations, available on the AHVLA's website, take the form of presentational material being used at three stakeholder meetings being held at different locations in England between September 20 and October 4. They are accompanied by podcasts giving some background to the changes, with feedback being invited via an online form. In some respects, this looks more like an information gathering exercise than a consultation in the formal sense, but the presentations do give an indication of the approach the AHVLA intends to take to competitive tendering while seeking to develop ‘a more collaborative and strategic approach to working with private veterinary practices who carry out vital work on our behalf’.

On tendering for TB testing, the AHVLA says its aim is to achieve a consistent and auditable quality of testing while also demonstrating value for money. It says it is ‘very aware’ of concerns among existing suppliers that its new approach to procurement will exclude local and small private practices; in view of this, it will be encouraging tenders that demonstrate delivery by a network of practices, led by a lead provider. Whether this approach, coupled with its proposals on pricing and that would-be providers should bid for geographical ‘lots’, will address these and other concerns (see, for example, the letter from Neil Howie in VR, August 27, 2011, vol 169, p 235) remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the arrangements proposed are very different from those currently in place. Meanwhile, the role that lay TB testers might play in the future has still to be clarified.

The presentation on partnership working is less specific than the one on TB testing but, in some ways, illustrates even more clearly the changing relationship between vets, government and what used to be called the state veterinary service. In the accompanying podcast, Simon Hall, the AHVLA's veterinary director, suggests that ‘There could be a future in which private vets are in the forefront of disease surveillance and control, with the AHVLA committed to supporting them.’ There could clearly be opportunities in the private sector as the AHVLA moves to outsource some of its activities; the challenge, both for practitioners and the agency, will be to ensure that the arrangements are practical and robust enough to meet requirements for a healthy and sustainable food and farming industry and to safeguard society against animal disease-related threats.

The consultations and tendering exercise are taking place at a time when the AHVLA is in a state of flux (VR, August 27, 2011, vol 169, p 216; September 10, 2011, vol 169, p 268) and, as the Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens, points out in an article on pp 325–326 of this issue, ‘the big challenge still facing Defra is how to continue delivering excellent public services with reduced means’. For those affected by the changes and concerned about the outcome, the suggestion that they are being driven by a neoliberal shift is unlikely to provide much comfort, but it does put developments in some sort of context.

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