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Redefining responsibilities for animal health

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IT IS difficult to be sure what the working arrangements for tackling bovine TB in England will be in five years' time but, if there is one over-riding message in a document published by the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE) this week,1 it is that things cannot go on as they are.

Bovine TB, the AHWBE points out, is currently costing Defra about £100 million a year, and the costs can be expected to rise to more than £120 million by 2014/15. At the same time, as a result of the Government's spending review in 2010, Defra has to cut total expenditure by 30 per cent by 2015. As far as its animal health budget is concerned, spending will fall from £244 million in 2011/12 to £199 million in 2014/15. There won't be enough money to sustain the current arrangements so savings will have to be made.

Meanwhile, the board points out, despite the steps taken so far, ‘We are not yet winning the war on bovine TB in England’ and the disease situation is getting worse. It believes that a ‘step change’ is needed in the approach to TB and, in the document published this week, it challenges vets and farmers to come up with ideas for tackling the disease more effectively in a way that is sustainable for the industry and the taxpayer (see p 258 of this issue). It believes that finding new ways of working through dialogue and partnership offers the best chance of doing this and describes its public call for views as ‘the start of an open dialogue about finding solutions’. It is seeking ideas on both new approaches to the disease and new ways of working, and some of the options considered in the document suggest that it is thinking about changing things quite radically.

Suggestions include a regional approach to eradicating TB in England with tougher movement controls and improved surveillance in areas of high disease incidence, and working towards official TB-free status in low incidence areas. They also include changes in the compensation arrangements, and the introduction of some form of insurance scheme to help farmers meet additional costs.

As far as the veterinary profession is concerned, the most directly relevant observations relate to the arrangements for TB testing by Official Veterinarians. The board suggests in the document that there are ‘compelling reasons’ for changing the arrangements, suggesting that one approach might involve farmers arranging their own tests and negotiating prices directly with veterinary practices approved the AHVLA. Such an approach, it suggests, offers ‘real scope for efficiencies’.

The AHWBE plays a significant role in determining government policy in England and was set up last year to take forward plans for cost and responsibility sharing (VR, August 4, 2012, vol 171, pp 108, 115-116). However, Michael Seals, the board's chairman, told Veterinary Record this week that responsibility and cost sharing was ‘only ever a concept’; things had moved on, and the concept now being developed might be better described as one of ‘supported responsibility’, in which the industry took responsibility for animal health with appropriate support from government. The board was currently focusing on bovine TB but new ways of working developed in relation to TB might also be applied in other areas.

One of the aims when the AHWBE was set up was that it should engage with the industry to change the way animal health is managed in England and, judging from some of the ideas discussed in the document, it may be about to start making its mark. It has called for suggestions by October 18 and will also be holding a number of workshops over the next few weeks to which vets and farmers are invited to contribute. Meanwhile, Mr Seals will speaking in a debate on responsibility and cost sharing at this year's BVA Congress, which takes place in Liverpool from September 27 to 29 (www.bva.co.uk/congress). The debate should provide an opportunity to catch up on what is happening, and assess the AHWBE's progress to date.

1 ‘A call for your views on strengthening our TB eradication programme and new ways of working.’ Available at www.defra.gov.uk/ahwbe/work/bovinetb/

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