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Laboratory concerns

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THE House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is currently looking into the AHVLA's rationalisation of its laboratory services and its plans to procure Official Veterinarian (OV) services (including TB testing) by competitive tendering. In both written and oral evidence to the select committee, the BVA and the British Cattle Veterinary Association have argued that the changes are being pushed through too quickly and could threaten this country's disease surveillance infrastructure (VR, January 21, 2012, vol 170, p 64; February 11, 2012, vol 170, p 140). Judging from a letter it sent to the agriculture minister, Jim Paice, last week, the committee has taken the associations' concerns on board.

Drawing attention to the letter in a press release, the select committee warns that ‘The Government must ensure cost-saving measures at the AHVLA do not diminish the UK's ability to identify and tackle animal disease outbreaks’ and that ‘plans to close AHVLA laboratory services at sites across the UK may risk a reduction in the agency's ability to diagnose important animal diseases’.

Its letter sets out a number of concerns raised by farmers, vets and AHVLA staff about the laboratory rationalisation programme, which was announced by the AHVLA in September last year (VR, October 1, 2011, vol 169, p 348). According to Anne McIntosh, the committee's chair, ‘We received worrying expert evidence that the transport of animal samples to distant laboratories, following the closure of AHVLA sites, will lead to a deterioration in samples with an associated risk of failing to diagnose animal disease. In addition, there is a risk that the agency will lose key specialist skills.’

The committee says the evidence it received suggests that there was insufficient consultation about the changes to laboratory services and, in its letter, seeks clarification from the minister on the consultation processes involved. Noting that the AHVLA might undertake further rationalisations or reorganisations in future, it seeks assurances that any further changes will only take place after an appropriate full consultation exercise.

The select committee is concerned about the impact of the closure of certain AHVLA laboratory services on the agency's ability to identify and tackle emerging threats – a concern which it notes has been brought into sharp focus by the appearance of Schmallenberg virus. It continues, ‘Animal disease is one of the top national risks managed by Defra and it is a risk that is likely to become less predictable as animal disease patterns are influenced by climate change. We are concerned that Defra has allowed the AHVLA to focus too much on cost saving without considering the wider implications of reducing the laboratory services network, not least the longer term economic impact of serious animal disease outbreaks in the UK.’

While mostly relating to the rationalisation of laboratory services, the letter also notes concerns expressed about the impact of the AHVLA's proposals on tendering for OV services. The committee comments, ‘While we do not consider it inevitable that larger veterinary consortia would lead to a reduction in the quality of testing, we are concerned that some of the additional benefits of local vets visiting farms to conduct tests may be lost.’ It asks for Defra's assessment of the impact of the change on the quality of TB testing and also seeks clarification as to whether EU procurement rules are sufficiently flexible to reflect benefits other than price.

The committee says its principal concern in considering these issues has been the UK's continuing ability to identify, monitor and tackle animal disease. It adds, pertinently and somewhat pointedly, ‘We are aware, however, that the Government will need the support and confidence of livestock farmers and other stakeholders as it looks to introduce responsibility and cost sharing. We consider the handling of these proposals, particularly the closure of certain AHVLA laboratory services, will have done little to inspire confidence in the department.’

The Government has still to respond to the committee's letter and may yet do so robustly. Speaking at a BVA dinner in London last week, the Secretary of State at Defra, Caroline Spelman, was at pains to point out that no laboratories had closed as a result of the AHVLA's rationalisation. She also said that the strategic aim had been to improve surveillance and the service provided rather than to make savings.

At the same event, the BVA President, Carl Padgett, reiterated the Association's concerns that, by announcing changes to the laboratory network and then announcing a surveillance review, the agency was putting the cart before the horse. The problem is that the AHVLA is addressing a number of interrelated issues separately when they need to be considered as a whole (see VR, February 25, 2012, vol 170, p 190).

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