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A year in summary

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2012 began with concerns about the future of veterinary surveillance in Britain and is ending on a similar note. In January, the AHVLA announced that it had asked an independent advisory group to recommend a model for delivering surveillance in England more effectively and at a more affordable cost to the taxpayer. The advisory group, chaired by Dirk Pfeiffer, of the Royal Veterinary College, was given just a few months to come up with its recommendations, which it did. The AHVLA subsequently set up a project team to work out how to take the ideas forward and has now produced a consultation document seeking views on how it plans to proceed (see pp 634-635 of this issue). Its proposals, which include closing some local veterinary investigation centres and making more use of university facilities and private practitioners in helping to undertake surveillance, herald a fundamental shift in the way surveillance for new and emerging diseases is conducted.

The AHVLA continues to insist that the proposed changes are intended to strengthen surveillance, which may well be true. However, there can be no doubt that the changes are also being financially driven. Following the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010, the budget for scanning surveillance is being cut significantly, from £10 million in 2009/10 to £6 million by 2014/15. It is hard to overestimate the importance of such surveillance, which identified the emergence of BSE in the late 1980s and has identified many other diseases of economic, animal welfare and public health significance since. New diseases continue to emerge. It is essential that surveillance capability is maintained as funding is cut, and new ways of working must be developed. It would make sense to ensure that any new arrangements are firmly in place before the existing system is dismantled. Unfortunately, time is running out and it seems all too possible that this might not happen.

Finding new ways of working against a background of reduced public funding has been a constant theme in 2012, and not just in relation to surveillance. Working in partnership forms part of the Government's longstanding plans for sharing the costs and responsibilities of animal health and transferring more responsibility to the industry. How this is to be achieved in practice has still to be determined. However, in September, the chairman of the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE), which is responsible for taking the plans forward in England, indicated that thinking had moved on. Rather than responsibility and cost sharing, the concept now being developed was one of ‘supported responsibility’, in which industry took responsibility for animal health with appropriate support from government. Whatever the concept, it seems important that the transfer takes place in a structured way, and doesn't just happen by default.

Right on cue, and almost as if prompted by the surveillance review, a new virus arrived in Britain in 2012. The virus was identified as emerging in Germany and the Netherlands in the autumn of 2011, where it had been causing transient disease in cattle and deformities in newborn sheep, cattle and goats. It was called Schmallenberg virus, after the town in Germany where it was first isolated, and is thought to be transmitted by midges. The first cases in Britain were reported in January on farms in Norfolk, Suffolk and East Sussex and, since then, during the course of the year, the virus seems to have found its way into most farming counties across England and Wales. Antibodies have been found in animals imported into Scotland, and cases have been reported in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. It has also spread in continental Europe.

The speed with which the virus was identified and tests were developed is credit to the researchers involved and highlights the importance of surveillance and the work that underpins it at local, national and international levels. However, the disease is considered to be of low impact. For the time being, no control measures are available and, while information about the disease continues to be made available, uncertainty remains about how things will develop.

It might not be new, but bovine TB continued to have an impact in 2012, politically, economically and on farms. The economics of the situation in England were starkly set out by the AHWBE which, in a consultation document issued in September, noted that bovine TB is currently costing Defra about £100 million a year and that this could be expected to rise to more than £120 million by 2014/15. At the same time, Defra's animal health budget has been cut and will fall from £244 million in 2011/12 to £199 million in 2014/15. In the meantime, the AHWBE pointed out, ‘We are not yet winning the war on bovine TB’. It said a ‘step change’ in approach was needed and it challenged vets and farmers to come up with ideas for new ways of working and for tackling the disease more effectively in an economically sustainable way.

2012 saw a number of changes aimed at strengthening TB controls on cattle. However, as in previous years, debate about badger controls predominated. In March, the Welsh Government announced that, rather than carry out a pilot cull of badgers in the Intensive Action Area in Wales, as had been planned by the previous administration, it would be vaccinating badgers instead. Meanwhile, in England, where the culling of badgers had effectively been ruled out by the previous government, licences were issued in the autumn under rules introduced by the current administration allowing two pilot culls of badgers to go ahead. Neither decision was uncontroversial but, as might be expected, it was the decision to allow culling in England that generated most heat. It also resulted in a legal challenge from the Badger Trust, which ultimately failed.

In the event, the culls were postponed until next summer, mainly because, as a result of delays in getting the go ahead, and because the number of badgers in the pilot cull areas turned out to be higher than expected, the farmers planning to carry them out could not be confident of removing the required number of badgers in the time available this year. Defra remains committed to the culls as part of its policy for controlling TB. However, as the events of this year have demonstrated, effort must be devoted to explaining why culling is necessary if resistance to the idea from the media and the public is to be overcome.

New pet travel rules, making it cheaper and easier for people to travel abroad with their pets, came into effect in January, as Britain came into line with the rest of the EU. It is already clear that people are taking advantage of the new rules, with about 120,000 pets having entered or re-entered the country by the end of November, compared with 97,000 during the whole of last year. Although animals still have to be treated against tapeworms before entering the country, a requirement that they should be also treated against ticks has been dropped. Nevertheless, owners need to be aware of the risks of their animals picking up ticks and possibly tickborne diseases when travelling abroad, and the need to take preventive steps. Increased movement of animals increases the risks of diseases being introduced, and this is an area that would benefit from more surveillance.

Issues surrounding inappropriate dog breeding continued to attract attention in a year which saw the launch of a BVA/Kennel Club Canine Health Scheme to screen dogs for syringomyelia and, in another welcome development, the introduction of veterinary checks at Crufts. The Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding made recommendations on the minimum standards that should be met by all those involved in dog breeding, as well as producing a list prioritising inherited health problems that need to be addressed. Meanwhile, the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation and the RSPCA launched a ‘puppy contract’ to help prospective buyers avoid the problems that might arise through buying a puppy from an irresponsible breeder. February 2012 saw the broadcast of a follow-up to the BBC television programme Pedigree Dogs Exposed which, in 2008, did so much to stimulate interest in this area. Like the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, which also reported during the year on developments since the original broadcast, the follow-up programme reported that progress has been made over the past four years but that much remains to be done.

In April, Defra announced a package of dog control measures, describing this as ‘clampdown on dangerous dogs’. However, for many of the interested organisations that contributed to a Defra consultation on the issue some two years ago, the proposed package was more of a letdown, as it included little in the way of measures to prevent attacks. Also, in proposing that existing dangerous dogs legislation should be extended to cover attacks on private property, it failed to recognise the deficiencies of the breed-specific Dangerous Dogs Act and the many problems this causes. This is an area where Defra and the Home Office might usefully learn from the devolved administrations. The law in Scotland already includes measures aimed at preventing dog attacks, and the Welsh Government has recently announced plans for similar legislation in Wales.

Devolution continues to have an impact in many aspects of life in the UK, as demonstrated in July when Scotland announced plans to establish its own Food Standards Agency. This was not the result of dissatisfaction with the UK agency, which, since it was set up 12 years ago, is generally reckoned to have done a good job. Rather, it was a bureaucratic consequence of changes in the FSA's remit following the Coalition Government's review of its arm's length bodies in 2010. It remains to be seen whether two separate bodies can operate as effectively as one, but it is clear that activities will need to be coordinated.

One of the many decisions made by the FSA during 2012 related to fallout from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986, when restrictions were placed on meat from sheep grazing certain upland areas of Britain from entering the food chain because of concerns that it might be contaminated with radioactive caesium. More than 25 years after the reactor blew up, the FSA agreed that the risks had declined to the extent that the controls could finally be lifted. In another decision that relates to a problem that arose in the 1980s, the FSA has more recently decided to advise the Government that the routine testing of healthy slaughter cattle more than 72 months of age for BSE can come to end.

The veterinarian's role in relation to safe food production was underlined by a series of recommendations in a report from the Veterinary Development Council in May. The VDC, a cross-industry group set up on the basis of recommendations made in the Lowe report of 2009, emphasised the importance of the veterinarian's contribution throughout the food chain and, like the Lowe report, urged the profession to engage more effectively with the business of farming.

Regarding regulation of the profession, 2012 saw the introduction by the RCVS of new Codes of Professional Conduct for vets and veterinary nurses, as well as a decision by the RCVS Council to develop a new structure for veterinary postgraduate specialisation. The plans for specialisation aim to simplify the system, making it easier to understand for the profession and the public, and will include, among other things, a new category of ‘advanced practitioners’, representing a ‘middle tier’ of expertise. In October, a legislative reform order was placed before Parliament which will have the effect of changing the constitution of the profession's preliminary investigation and disciplinary committees. The order is intended to modernise the profession's disciplinary machinery and represents the first tangible result in a debate on updating the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act that has been going on for well over a decade.

The veterinary presence in Parliament received a boost in May, when it was announced that Professor Alexander (Sandy) Trees had been appointed to the House of Lords. Lord Trees, a former dean of Liverpool veterinary school and current veterinary editor-in-chief of Veterinary Record, joins Lord Soulsby in the Upper House and is the second veterinary surgeon to have been appointed as a peer.

Glasgow veterinary school celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012. Meanwhile, in October, the University of Surrey announced that it would be launching a new veterinary school in 2014, built on the philosophy of ‘one health – one medicine’. The Surrey school will bring the total number of veterinary schools in the UK to eight and, at a time when there is concern within the profession about the impact of increasing numbers of students on the employment prospects of future graduates, the university's plans have attracted a fair amount of comment – certainly more than when the University of Nottingham announced that it would starting a new school some eight or nine years ago.

Concern about antimicrobial resistance was much to the fore in 2012, as reflected, for example, in debates at the BVA Congress, and at a symposium in London where veterinary and medical professionals examined the issues from the perspective of one health. In October, the UK's Veterinary Medicines Directorate announced that it will be banning the advertising of antimicrobials to farmers when it updates the UK's Veterinary Medicines Regulations next year, in line with existing EU legislation. At a European level, interest in tackling antimicrobial resistance seems to be focusing particularly on limiting their use in animals at present and, with the European Commission currently in the process of updating veterinary medicines legislation, it remains important that vets are seen to be using products responsibly.

On the animal welfare front, the year saw consultations in the UK on how best to implement a European regulation aimed at safeguarding the welfare of animals used in research, as well as on a directive aimed at protecting food animals at the time of slaughter. European decisions continue to have a significant impact on animal health and welfare legislation in the UK, as highlighted in a recent consultation document from Defra and the Food Standards Agency which asks, among other things, about the extent to which this is desirable (VR, December 8, 2012, vol 171, p 576).

The European Commission plans to introduce proposals for a new Animal Health Law in 2013, which will inevitably affect veterinary activity in the UK in years to come. For the time being, however, debate in the UK seems likely to continue to be dominated by concern to find new ways of working to help safeguard animal health and welfare in the light of reduced support from government, and the need to find solutions soon.

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