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Looking back, thinking ahead

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Veterinary Record celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2013 and a review of some of the events discussed in its pages during the year shows that it still remains as relevant as ever. A lot happened in the veterinary field in 2013, with implications for all branches of practice. However, some of the most significant developments related to the way government veterinary activity is organised in Great Britain and the changing relationship between private practitioners and the state.

The year got off to a dramatic start in January when, following tests undertaken by the Irish authorities, it soon emerged that some processed ‘beef’ products being sold across Europe in fact contained horsemeat. The result was a full-blown food scandal, of the kind not seen in Britain since the late 1990s, when BSE was constantly in the news, with the important difference, perhaps, that this was seen less as a food safety issue, and more an issue of food standards and of consumers being misled. There appeared to be some confusion among politicians, officials, retailers and others about who, exactly, was responsible for preventing such incidents; however, although it is still not clear where or how the horsemeat entered the food chain, and no one has been prosecuted, everyone seemed clear that some sort of criminal activity was involved. This particular aspect is underlined by a recent government-commissioned report on the incident which calls, among other things, for a special unit to be set up in the UK to help combat food crime (see p 594 of this issue).

The horsemeat scandal has done much to highlight the complexity of modern food supply chains and the need to have clear, robust systems in place to ensure that they work as they should. Equally important is ensuring that sufficient resources are available to ensure that rules are adequately policed and enforced. With residues of the drug phenylbutazone having been found in some of the meat samples tested as the scandal came to light, the incident also demonstrated the shortcomings of Europe's horse passport arrangements and these will have to be addressed.

As far as state veterinary activity is concerned, the year began with the AHVLA consulting on proposals on the future organisation of veterinary surveillance in England and Wales; this month, the agency explained how it intends to proceed and the outcome of a review process that has been going for two or three years finally became clear. One result is that, despite concerns raised by the BVA and others during the consultation exercise, the number of AHVLA centres carrying out postmortem examinations for disease surveillance purposes is to be significantly reduced, from 14 to six, as the AHVLA tries to make use of other potential sources of surveillance data while hoping that the private and university sectors will develop alternative postmortem services instead. The aim, the AHVLA says, is to create ‘a new, more effective and financially sustainable surveillance system’, providing wider geographical and species coverage and allowing for the development of more expertise. At this stage, however, it is by no means clear just how things will develop and, given the importance of disease surveillance, it is difficult not to be concerned.

Embedded ImageThe AHVLA confirmed in July that it will be changing the way it procures the services of OVs for TB testing

In part these and other changes are being financially driven as, faced with a diminishing budget, the AHVLA strives to find new ways of working to help it meet its various responsibilities in relation to animal health. In part, they can be seen as being an element of a wider ideological shift in government, whereby individuals and the industry are expected to take more responsibility for their actions and be less reliant on the state.

At the end of July, the AHVLA confirmed that it would be changing the way it enlists the services of private practitioners to carry out Official Veterinarian (OV) activities, including TB testing, which accounts for the bulk of government spending in this area. It would also be changing the OV training arrangements. In future, it said, contracts would be awarded through competitive tender, with contracts being awarded to ‘delivery partners’ who would be expected to provide ‘a flexible package of veterinary services including tuberculin testing, other government-funded services, such as brucellosis testing, and potentially new areas of work’. Under the new arrangements, vets would be expected to pay for their own training. This would be available through a single AHVLA-approved provider, which would also be appointed by tender.

The AHVLA expects the new arrangements to be in place by the middle of next year but, as yet, the precise requirements of the tendering exercise have still to be made clear. The changes represent a fundamental shift in the way in which the government procures the services of private practitioners and, ultimately, could significantly affect the way farm animal practice is structured and operates.

Bovine TB continued to be the subject of much attention in 2013, not least because two pilot culls of badgers in England, which had been postponed in 2012, finally went ahead. Neither of the culls, in Somerset and Gloucestershire, killed as many badgers as intended. The results are currently being assessed and will be used to help determine whether the culling should be extended to other areas of England where TB is endemic.

The controversy generated by the badger culls in England again tended to detract from efforts to improve the TB controls applied to cattle. In Wales, these included the launch in October of ‘Cymorth TB’, an initiative aimed at getting farmers and vets to work together more closely to help manage and prevent breakdowns on farms, while, in July, Defra published proposals for a new TB strategy for England. Among other things, this takes a regional approach to eliminating bovine TB, which involves England being divided into ‘low-risk’, ‘high-risk’ and ‘edge area’ regions. Different control measures will be applied in the three regions, tailored to local circumstances. The aim is to achieve official TB-free status for all counties in the low-risk region by 2025, and for the whole of England in 25 years' time, and some of the measures, including steps aimed at encouraging risk-based trading of cattle, are already being applied.

In January, the UK Parliament approved a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) updating the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act, marking the first tangible result in a debate on updating the Act that has been going on for more than a decade. The LRO updates the profession's disciplinary structure, bringing it more into line with what is currently regarded as best practice, and means that the RCVS's Preliminary Investigation and Disciplinary Committees will no longer be made up of members of the College's Council. More recently, the RCVS has adopted a new strategy and, having spent the past decade trying to find ways of revising the Veterinary Surgeons Act, has now turned its attention to updating its Royal Charter. Last week, it launched a consultation on proposals for a new charter, which sets out the objects and activities of the College in a way that it hopes will put activities such as the regulation of veterinary nursing, recognition of specialists and regulation of practice standards on a firmer footing (see p 595 of this issue).

In March, Veterinary Record drew attention to an article in the New York Times discussing veterinary employment in the USA. Called ‘High debt and failing demand trap new vets’, this painted a grim picture of the situation facing new vets in the USA, who were qualifying in greater numbers and with significant debts at a time when demand for their services seemed to be falling. With the number of UK graduates having increased in recent years, the University of Surrey planning to open a new veterinary school in 2014 and rumours that other new schools might be in the pipeline, this restimulated the debate about the career prospects of graduates in the UK, where increased student debt is also of concern. In July, the RCVS published the results of a survey of graduate employment over the past five years, suggesting that the situation in the UK was ‘not as gloomy’ as some were predicting. Meanwhile, the British Equine Veterinary Association drew attention to a survey of its members which suggested that up to five times as many veterinary graduates wanted to work in equine practice as there were jobs available. In October, the BVA hosted a discussion forum to try to clarify the issues and establish what might lie ahead for current and future graduates (see VR, November 2, 2013, vol 173, pp 406, 416-417). It would be hard to argue that increasing numbers of graduates will not affect future employment and, while it might be argued that the effects need not necessarily be negative, it would seem important to keep an eye on developments in years to come.

A new UK Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy was published by the Government in September. This advocates a ‘one health’ approach to tackling the problem of resistance which, as articles in Veterinary Record continued to reflect throughout the year, is of mounting concern worldwide. In a joint foreword to the strategy, the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens, and the Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, describe antimicrobial resistance as a global problem that cannot be eliminated, but argue that ‘a multidisciplinary approach involving a wide range of partners will limit the risk of antimicrobial resistance and minimise its impact for health, now and in the future’.

The importance of a multidisciplinary ‘one health’ approach to this and other issues was a significant theme at this year's congress of the World Veterinary Association, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013. It was further underlined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the World Health Organization which, in a tripartite statement issued on World Rabies Day on September 28, highlighted the importance of vaccinating dogs to prevent rabies in people.

Veterinary Record celebrated its own anniversary by publishing a series of articles focusing on topics of current interest and discussing how these have developed over the years. The last of these, on antimicrobial resistance, appears on p 599 of this issue.

In addition, two new BVA journals were launched in 2013. Both are peer-reviewed, and both are published online. Veterinary Record Case Reports (http://vetrecordcasereports.bmj.com) provides an opportunity for practitioners, students, those studying for a certificate or a diploma and others to publish reports of interesting cases encountered in all branches of practice. Veterinary Record Open (http://journals.bmj.com/site/vetrecopen) is a new open access journal that complements Veterinary Record by publishing research which, although scientifically sound, may not be of broad enough appeal for publication in Veterinary Record itself. An open access option continues to be available for papers submitted to Veterinary Record.

In February, the Government announced that it would be making the microchipping of dogs compulsory in England, from April 6, 2016. The decision was announced as part of a package of measures aimed at curbing irresponsible dog ownership and, in particular, dealing with the problem of dangerous dogs. The Government's proposals for new dangerous dogs legislation were the subject of much debate during 2013, being described by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for example, as ‘woefully inadequate’. The problem, apart from the fact that they fail to address the problems caused by the breed-specific measures enshrined in the existing Dangerous Dogs Act, is that they contain little in the way of measures actually to prevent dogs attacks, as a system of dog control notices might have done. They also fail to address the problem of irresponsible dog breeding. The Government insists that alternative means of prevention will be available under the Home Office's Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which is also currently wending its way through Parliament, but concern remains that this could turn out to be too blunt an instrument to deal with issues relating to dogs.

The consequences of increased numbers of pets entering the UK following changes to European pet travel rules in January 2012 began to ring alarm bells in 2013, leading to calls on Defra to revise its risk assessment of the possibility of an incursion of rabies. The risk of rabies being introduced might be considered to be low, but confidence was not enhanced in November when the disease was identified in two imported puppies in the Netherlands and, in a separate incident, a kitten in France. Increased pet travel raises animal health and welfare issues that go beyond concerns about rabies and these were well aired in a debate involving the UK's chief veterinary officers at this year's BVA Congress (VR, November 30, 2013, vol 173, pp 508, 509-511). This year, for the first time, the congress was held as part of the London Vet Show.

For all the developments in 2013, the Government's push for greater private sector involvement (or at least less government involvement) in safeguarding animal health is likely to prove the most significant in the longer term. It may well be, as some have suggested, that the changes being introduced present new opportunities and that, with industry involvement and appropriate support, could ultimately be to the benefit of animal health. However, with various elements of its strategy having seemingly been drip fed to the profession and the industry over the past 12 months, and much of the infrastructure still to be put in place, it is hard to be sure quite what the outcome will be.

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