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Part of a jigsaw

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TRYING to work out where animal health policy is going at the moment is a bit like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle in which the number of pieces is not specified, the shape of the pieces is changing and you haven't got the final picture in front of you. This certainly seems to apply in the case of the AHVLA's proposals for scanning surveillance in England and Wales, on which the agency consulted towards the end of last year (VR, January 5, 2013, vol 172, p 2), although it might equally be applied to the veterinary and technical services strategy it published in April (VR, April 20, 2013, vol 172, p 406) or plans to change the arrangements for procuring the services of private practitioners that were announced by the agency a couple of weeks ago (VR, May 11, 2013, vol 172, p 486). All of the pieces are related, and must be made to fit together somehow, but no one seems quite sure how. Nor is it clear what the final overall picture will be, although it does seem likely that finding new ways of meeting the costs of bovine TB will form a pretty big part of it. What is clear, however, is that, with reduced funding from government, the pieces of the puzzle need to be put together soon.

The AHVLA has just published a summary of the responses to its consultation on surveillance and, given that partnership working forms an integral part of its plans, the results make for interesting reading. One of the aims of the surveillance project, which is based on the outcome of an independent review undertaken at the beginning of last year (VR, April 21, 2012, vol 170, pp 400, 402-403), is to create ‘a new, more effective and financially sustainable system, including improving access through better partnership working and by developing better skills and knowledge’. This in itself is laudable but, with the budget for surveillance being cut substantially, there can be little doubt that the exercise is being financially driven. This was illustrated by a remark in the consultation document that ‘improved surveillance can be achieved at a lower, affordable cost to the taxpayer, primarily through a reduction in the AHVLA's infrastructure and overheads’. It was also illustrated by three example scenarios in the document discussing the provision of postmortem facilities at AHVLA centres. At present, postmortem facilities are available at 15 sites; in the examples given, this would be reduced to between five and seven, and two centres with the highest throughput would close.

In its summary of responses, the AHVLA emphasises that the examples were ‘illustrative only’ and that ‘the ideas, options and scenarios provided were not decisions that had already been made’ which, given the level of support for them, is probably just as well. The agency reports that most of the 95 organisations or individuals that commented on this issue disagreed that any of the options suggested would provide an adequate service, even if a carcase collection service was available, with cost, convenience and timeliness being cited as the main drivers which currently encourage submissions.

Regarding roles and responsibilities of AHVLA staff, most of the respondents rejected proposals for having a single, integrated team of AHVLA vets, on the grounds that mixing regulatory and advisory roles could cause confusion. Plans for greater flexibility among AHVLA staff were outlined in the agency's veterinary and technical services strategy which was published last month, and it will be interesting to see how the respondents' concerns are accounted for when this strategy is implemented. Meanwhile, opinion on proposals to develop centres of species-based expertise was divided, with half of the respondents supporting the idea and half being against it.

There was general support for the idea that private practitioners should be more involved in scanning surveillance processes, but this would have to have a solid basis of training and communication and, the AHVLA points out, outcomes would have to balance quality and cost. Overall, the agency reports, there was general agreement with the objectives for surveillance set out in the consultation document, but concern that the proposals would not meet the objectives that had been set.

The AHVLA is using the information gathered in the exercise to help develop recommendations to Defra and Welsh Government ministers, and says it hopes to make an announcement in the summer. It adds that any ‘physical changes’ are likely to be implemented in 2014.

In the meantime, the arrangements for surveillance represent just one piece of the policy jigsaw, and can only form part of the overall picture. For those affected by or wanting to contribute to the new arrangements, it would be helpful if a clearer view of the overall picture emerged.

■ The AHVLA's summary of responses to its consultation, as well as a more detailed breakdown of responses by sector, is available at

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