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Tendering in the round

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ANY lingering doubts that the AHVLA might yet have a change of heart and decide not to proceed with the introduction of competitive tendering for the procurement of TB testing services in England are likely to be dispelled by an update posted on the agency's website last week. Summarising feedback obtained during its consultation on the issue last autumn (see VR, September 24, 2011, vol 169, pp 320, 321) and outlining what might happen next, the AHVLA sets out the situation in fairly blunt terms. Essentially, having considered the feedback, and continued to explore whether there are any other legally acceptable approaches which would assure quality and value for money, the AHVLA believes that ‘it has now explored all possible options for TB testing and has identified a limited number of options that are both legal and practical’. One of the options is the ‘delivery partner’ model outlined during its consultation exercise. These options have been presented to the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE), which will make recommendations to ministers.

The AHWBE considered the options at a meeting earlier this month and will consider them further at its meeting in March. The options presented to the AHWBE have not been made public. However, the information on the AHVLA's website makes clear that, despite concerns quite evidently raised during the consultation exercise (see p 191 of this issue), plans to introduce tendering continue apace. An updated question and answer document on the AHVLA's website answers some questions but raises quite a few more. However, it leaves little room for doubt that tendering in some shape or form will happen, and could happen pretty soon.

The update on the AHVLA's website also summarises the results of its consultation on opportunities for working in partnership with veterinary practices, which was carried out at the same time as the consultation on tendering for TB testing. In addition, it notes that the proposals on tendering for TB testing are being considered alongside proposals for improving surveillance, in which veterinary practices play an important role. The arrangements for surveillance are also under review, with the recommendations from an independent review group expected in March (VR, January 14, 2012, vol 170, pp 34, 35).

The concern must be that the AHVLA is considering these issues separately, when in reality they are interdependent and need to be considered as a whole. There is a danger, reflected in the feedback to the two consultations, that, by dealing with TB testing separately, and pushing ahead with its plans to introduce tendering, the AHVLA could be putting prospects for improved surveillance and more effective partnership working at risk.

Such concerns have been brought to the attention of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom), which is currently conducting an inquiry into the AHVLA's plans for competitive tendering as well its rationalisation of its laboratory services. Giving evidence to the committee earlier this month, the presidents of the BVA and the British Cattle Veterinary Association expressed concern that the tendering programme could significantly change the farm animal practice infrastructure in the UK and result in less contact between farmers and their vets. This, in turn, would reduce the ability of practitioners to contribute to nationally important activities such as disease control and surveillance. Emphasising that TB testing could not be considered in isolation, they also expressed concern about the speed with which the changes were being implemented, suggesting that these could weaken, rather than strengthen, the relationship between the AHVLA, vets and other stakeholders, which is precisely the opposite of what everyone intends.

Quite what the EFRACom will make of this and the other evidence presented to its inquiry remains to be seen but, in the meantime, the fact that options on procuring TB testing services have already been put to the AHWBE gives an indication both of the significance of this new strategic body in determining future animal health policy in England and of the AHVLA's determination to push ahead with its plans. Established last year to increase the involvement of stakeholders in government decision making, the AHWBE has been charged, among other things, with encouraging partnership working and developing proposals for responsibility and cost sharing (VR, May 7, 2011, vol 168, pp 468, 469–470). It, more than any other body, needs to be fully aware of the likely consequences of the changes being made, and to consider the issues in the round.

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