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Cutting to the core

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AN inescapable theme of the many documents emanating from the AHVLA over the past two or three years is that money is tight and savings have to be made, and that new ways of working have to be found to maintain capability for the future. Sadly, given the importance of the agency's role in relation to animal health, public health and animal welfare, its latest corporate plan, covering the period 2013 to 2014,1 is no different and, if anything, tends to reinforce that message.

It talks, for example, of the AHVLA facing ‘very challenging financial targets’ over the remaining two years of the 2011/12 to 2014/15 spending review period – a situation that could become even more challenging given that, since the plan was drawn up, Defra has again fared badly in a second spending review conducted by the Chancellor, George Osborne. Being informed by the document that ‘Working with Defra, we shall continue to review the estate base to identify opportunities for further savings’ is less than reassuring, while a statement that ‘An approximate 40 per cent reduction of the AHVLA occupation at the Weybridge site is planned for 2013/14 which will deliver further savings’ sounds positively alarming.

Discussing staff levels, the last corporate plan from the AHVLA, which covered the period 2012 to 2015, indicated that the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff employed by the agency would be reduced by more than 20 per cent by 2015, from about 2500 in 2011/12 to about 2100 in 2014/15 (VR, June 20, 2012, vol 170, p 632). A table in the 2013/14 plan suggests that that level of reduction has already been reached, and may yet be exceeded, forecasting staff levels of 2034 FTEs in the year March 2013 to 2014, and 1862 FTEs in March 2014 to 2015. People seem to have become inured to job losses in the public sector over the past few years, but changes on this scale should not go unnoticed.

The 2013/14 plan draws attention to the pivotal role played by the AHVLA in managing exotic disease outbreaks, and mentions ‘Exercise Walnut’, which was carried out last month to test GB-wide contingency plans for controlling an outbreak of classical swine fever. Such exercises have been carried out periodically since the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 and are intended to test the country's preparedness for dealing with exotic disease outbreaks. However, the results of Exercise Walnut, the plan explains, will also be used to inform the AHVLA's ‘irreducible core’ assessments. It may well be, as the corporate plan suggests, that the minimum level of permanent AHVLA staff required to help deliver the critical mass of personnel needed to deal with an exotic disease outbreak is similar to its current complement, but what if it turns out not to be? Given the budgetary constraints, will it be able to take on more staff if the results of the exercise show that they may be needed?

There's more bad news in relation to research. On this, the plan notes that animal health research is ‘on average in the middle priority category of Defra's Evidence Investment Strategy’ and that the AHVLA has been advised that it should plan for a funding reduction of about 20 per cent from the 2010/11 baseline by the end of 2014/15.

Despite these concerns, on the whole the AHVLA seems stoically confident that it can continue to fulfil its commitments. In general, given the circumstances, its ideas for new, more efficient ways of working sound sensible, not least because, if you're no longer in a position to do everything yourself, you either stop doing things or try to find someone else to do some of them for you. These ideas have been well rehearsed over the past two or three years, and the past 12 months have seen the publication of documents covering the AHVLA's science strategy (VR, July 21, 2012, vol 171, p 54), its veterinary surveillance strategy (VR, January 5, 2013, vol 172, p 2) and its veterinary and technical services strategy (VR, April 20, 2013, vol 172, p 406), as well as an announcement about plans to change the arrangements for procuring veterinary services (VR, May 11, 2013, vol 172, p 486).

More recently, Defra has published a draft strategy for eradicating bovine TB in England, which the AHVLA, working with practitioners, will be expected to help to deliver (VR, July 13, 2013, vol 173, p 30). Taken together, all these documents give a general idea of the direction in which the agency is heading, but the overall picture, and how the various components will fit together, has still to become clear (VR, May 25, 2013, vol 172, p 538). The corporate plan for 2013/14 includes an annex which gives an indication of how the AHVLA intends to implement is strategy over the next two years and there seems little doubt that, internally at least, these plans will be implemented. What is less clear is whether, outside the agency, everyone else will be on board and, importantly, whether the necessary people and structures will be in place to help make sure that they work.

The veterinary and technical services strategy that was published in April drew attention to the need for the AHVLA to be able to adapt to new challenges while safeguarding ‘a critical irreducible core of capability’ to be deployed in the national interest. It remains vital that a decent-sized core is maintained. The Government has done much to promote the idea of ‘more for less’ in recent years, and now seems to be working on the principle that less means more. There's a limit to how far you can go with this. Push it too far and what it adds up to, and what everyone ends up with, is not very much of anything at all.

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