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Science and politics

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A COUPLE of years ago, the Welsh Government was planning a pilot badger cull as part of its strategy for eradicating bovine TB in an Intensive Action Area of Wales. Meanwhile, in England, the prospect of badger culling being used as a bovine TB control measure had effectively been ruled out. Now (after a change of government in both England and Wales) the situation is reversed. In December last year, the Secretary of State at Defra, Caroline Spelman, announced plans for two pilot culls of badgers in England (VR, December 24/31, 2011, vol 169, p 668). Earlier this week, after some delay, the Welsh environment minister, John Griffiths, announced that Wales would not be implementing a badger cull in its Intensive Action Area, but would be vaccinating badgers instead (see pp 297–298 of this issue).

Both governments are committed to evidence-based policymaking and, interestingly, while the ministers have come to different conclusions, their decisions were based on the same science. There might appear to be something contradictory about this but, as Rowland Kao recently commented in an editorial on bovine TB in Veterinary Record, ‘there is an inherent paradox in the need to take statistically rigorous, scientifically sophisticated recommendations and view them through the fuzzy lens of sociopolitical realities’ (VR, February 18, 2012, vol 170, pp 175–176). If nothing else, the different decisions suggest that the idea that ‘Advisers advise, ministers decide’ does apply.

Welsh plans for a cull were put on hold last summer, pending a further review of the scientific evidence. The review group's report, which was published when the minister announced his decision this week, summarises the current evidence base in 12 concise pages. Like previous reports, it highlights the complexity of bovine TB and makes clear that no single measure will lead to eradication. Differentiating between consensus with an evidence base and consensus based on expert opinion, it draws attention, among other things, to evidence from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial that culling of badgers in areas where the incidence of bovine TB is high can produce a reduction in confirmed bovine TB herd breakdowns compared with non-cull areas. While there has been no evaluation of the impact of badger vaccination on the incidence of herd breakdowns in cattle, it notes that there is some evidence for a direct effect on the incidence of signs of infection and disease in wild badgers and suggests that ‘in the medium to long term, repeated vaccination in an area is likely to reduce the level of bovine TB infection and disease in the local badger population and thus the risk to local cattle from badger-to-cattle transmission’. There are clearly some assumptions inherent in this and, to this extent, the Welsh minister's decision could be seen as less a case of evidence-based policymaking, more a case of let's give it a try.

Announcing his decision, the minister said that he had considered the evidence presented to him, including scientific and legal advice, but, at present, was not satisfied that a cull of badgers would bring about a substantial reduction in cases of TB in cattle. He nevertheless emphasised that he was committed to the eradication of bovine TB and, as part of this process, was launching a strategic framework for eradication that ‘acknowledged that we must deal with all sources of bovine TB, including wildlife.’ In a subsequent press briefing, he explained that vaccination could begin in two to three months and that the Welsh Government would be paying for the project.

The mention of legal advice in the minister's statement adds credence to the view expressed by the presidents of the BVA and BCVA this week that this was a political decision rather than a scientific one. There is, of course, nothing new about this – politics has always been an important part of this debate, which has been going on for decades and has been dogged by controversy and delay throughout. The situation remains frustrating, particularly for those directly affected, but there may be some consolation in the fact that the contribution of badgers to TB in cattle seems finally to have been firmly acknowledged in government and that action may be about to be taken to try to tackle the problem in both England and Wales, albeit in different ways.

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