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Cuts and capability

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THE AHVLA's Veterinary and Technical Services Strategy, which was published last week,1 does an excellent job of explaining what the agency does and why its role is so important. It also emphasises the importance of people to the AHVLA's operations, which is refreshing when, in most organisations these days, systems and structures tend to hold sway. However, apart from saying that the next step will be to introduce an implementation plan, the document says little about how the strategy will be put into effect. This is a pity because, as with any strategy, implementation will be key.

The strategy sets out to describe ‘the essential functions required of the AHVLA looking ahead five to 10 years, to understand what might change and what may be constant’. It may well be that, as the document points out, ‘this timescale transcends political changes and immediate pressures on public finances’, and it is certainly true that there is a need to look beyond the immediate challenges and try to ensure that state veterinary capability is maintained into the future. However, with Defra facing the prospect of additional cuts following the Chancellor's spring budget, the financial pressures on the agency show no sign of letting up. In such circumstances either something has to give or new ways of working have to be found and, as far as safeguarding animal health, public health and animal welfare are concerned, one can only hope it will be the latter.

Although it focuses on the AHVLA's veterinary and technical requirements, the strategy must be seen in the context of the wider debate about sharing costs and responsibilities for animal health, the ongoing review of veterinary surveillance and continuing discussions about the extent to which some of its activities might be outsourced in future to private practitioners. In this sense, it forms part of a much bigger picture, albeit a picture that has still to become clear.

Against this background, the strategy is probably right to focus on the essential functions of the AHVLA, and on the need for flexibility among its staff. It describes the agency's role in preventing, detecting and controlling threats to animal health, as well in protecting public health from risks from animals. It also highlights its role in protecting animal welfare, and in providing policy advice and facilitating safe trade. Looking ahead, it draws attention to the importance of being able to adapt to new challenges while safeguarding ‘a critical irreducible core of capability’ to be deployed in the national interest, and to the need for robust links between policymaking, operations and research. ‘Our vision is that we will create a community of trusted and responsive veterinary and technical staff with a strong operational science and research focus,’ the strategy document says. ‘Our people will be valued and respected as key influencers and solvers of complex practical problems. They will be able to work flexibly, under pressure and in challenging environments. A future of lifelong learning, knowledge sharing and innovative partnership working will maximise our impact and protect against adverse environmental consequences. Above all we will demonstrate a sustained commitment to securing a healthy future for animals and for people.’

What the document doesn't say is how big the critical core of capability will be, and how, exactly, the agency will operate, although it does mention that a revised AHVLA veterinary and technical structure will be completed by spring 2014, along with improvements to its governance system. Nor does it discuss the activities that might be outsourced and the opportunities this might present for private businesses, although it does point out that the AHVLA already works in extensive partnerships with private veterinarians and other organisations and that it will ‘continue to develop these robust, innovative partnerships to deliver value for money and resilience in accordance with long-term policy goals, ensuring that veterinary and technical experts are sourced and deployed in the most appropriate way’.

Elsewhere, the strategy document notes that the state veterinary service in Great Britain has a ‘rich legacy of achievement’ in providing protection against high-impact diseases and draws attention to the ‘special characteristics’ of state veterinary medicine as a discipline. Things are clearly changing rapidly and one can't help wondering, by the time all the spending cuts have taken their toll, how much of the old state veterinary service will be left.

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