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Bullish approach to bovine TB

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DEFRA'S draft strategy for achieving official bovine TB-free status for England, which was published for consultation last week,1 has much to commend it, not least in suggesting that achieving such status is actually possible and setting targets for when it might happen. In a foreword to the document, Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State at Defra, seems fairly bullish about the prospects of eradicating the disease in England, pointing to the progress made by other countries and arguing that, by using all the tools currently available while also developing new ones, there is no reason that progress should not also be made here. Some of the timelines set out in the document may seem ambitious; nevertheless, his positive attitude is refreshing and might at least go some way to dispelling the air of despondency that has overshadowed discussion of this subject in England in recent years.

That said, the document makes clear that dealing with bovine TB will not be easy; as Mr Paterson puts it, it will require ‘long-term solutions and national resolve’. The strategy proposes a regional approach, involving risk-based trading and with control measures, including measures to address the problem in wildlife where necessary, being tailored to specific areas. Under the plans, England will be divided into ‘Low Risk’, ‘High Risk’ and ‘Edge’ areas, with the aim of achieving official TB-free status for counties in the Low Risk area first, followed by counties in the Edge and then the High Risk areas (see pp 33-34 of this issue). The initial target is to achieve official TB-free status for all counties in the Low Risk area by 2025, and for the whole of England in 25 years.

The strategy document provides a useful summary of the current situation regarding bovine TB and does a good job of explaining why intervention to tackle the disease, including intervention by government, is necessary. It also provides a useful overview of the measures available for dealing with the disease, highlighting where these need to be developed further or where new tools are needed, as well as drawing attention to areas where knowledge is lacking. The nationally coordinated, risk-based approach set out in the document sounds sensible, albeit that the details will have to be considered carefully and that, for the time being at least, how the strategy will be delivered has still to be made clear.

Official Veterinarians (OVs) will have an important role in helping to deliver the strategy. Referring to this, the document explains that the Government is ‘seeking to introduce more competition for TB testing while ensuring quality’ and that it also plans to explore ways in which OVs in veterinary businesses could take on services currently delivered by the AHVLA, such as providing local advice, licensing cattle movements or carrying out veterinary risk assessments. It is also considering extending the exemption under the Veterinary Surgeons Act applying to lay TB testers, to allow lay testers to be employed by veterinary businesses, acting under the direction of an authorised veterinary surgeon.

The strategy has been developed with the help of the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England. Not surprisingly, after more than a decade of debate on the subject, it makes much of the Government and industry working in partnership, and of the need to redistribute responsibilities and costs. However, perhaps more than any other document published by Defra so far, it makes clear that, from the Government's perspective, the current situation is financially unsustainable and that things cannot go on as they are. It notes that the Government intends to develop proposals for a new funding model, adding that ‘the experiences of both New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland provide evidence of the success of co-financed strategies’ and implying that similar approaches could usefully be applied in England. Options under consideration include stakeholders paying more for control measures with, for example, farmers paying their OV for TB testing; changing the compensation arrangements; developing insurance options; and establishing a mutual TB control fund co-financed by government.

In his foreword, Mr Paterson says he is ‘absolutely clear that, if we are to tackle this disease successfully, we need to work together, whilst recognising respective responsibilities for government and industry both in terms of what we do and how we pay for it. We need a dialogue with industry on this.’ The consultation, he suggests, provides a perfect opportunity for that dialogue.

Most of the document is taken up with discussion of the current disease situation and approaches to control, with less space devoted to details of delivery and how responsibilities and costs will be shared. It must be hoped that agreement on these issues is reached soon. Ultimately, it will be on the practicalities of delivery and the degree of buy in from industry that the strategy will succeed or fail.

1. https://consult.defra.gov.uk/farming/tb/ Accessed July 10, 2013

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