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TRYING to keep track of the way Britain's Official Veterinarian (OV) arrangements are developing is like trying to keep up with a television soap opera, albeit one where the episodes do not appear so regularly. As with all the best soap operas, the plot is still evolving, with the details only being revealed gradually, and nobody can be sure about how and when it will end (if, indeed, it ever does). The latest episode – in the form of an update on the AHVLA's website – went out just before Christmas and, while it may have gone some way to moving the plot forward, it was still sufficiently short of detail to ensure that, for those likely to be affected by the changes, the suspense is maintained.1

This is particularly true with regard to one of the key plot-lines in the OV saga – the AHVLA's plans to award contracts to provide TB testing and other services on the basis of a competitive tendering exercise. When the agency announced that it would be doing this in July last year (VR, August 3, 2013, vol 173, p 103; August 10, 2013, vol 173, p 128), it indicated that tenders would be invited from ‘delivery partners’ who would be expected to supply ‘a flexible package of veterinary services including tuberculin testing, other government-funded services, such as brucellosis testing, and potentially new areas of work’. Tenders would be invited to provide government-funded services to a clearly defined specification on the basis of regional or national ‘lots’. It envisaged that 10 delivery partners would be required to deliver services in England and Wales. Importantly, from the point of view of maintaining local practitioner involvement in OV work, these would be required to subcontract a large proportion of the work to small- and medium-sized businesses, which would be required to provide veterinary services to livestock businesses within the lot region.

In the update published just before Christmas, the AHVLA indicates that the ‘initial thinking’ now is that there will be seven regional lots, with a delivery partner appointed in each. It defines these lots in broad geographical terms, which might be regarded as progress of sorts but will do little to dispel the uncertainty and anxiety that continues to surround the tendering process or make it any easier for practices to plan ahead. Unfortunately, the situation is unlikely to become much clearer until the relevant invitation-to-tender document is published. According to the AHVLA's update, this is likely to be ‘around early/mid-2014′, which in itself sounds more than a little vague.

The second main storyline concerns the new OV training arrangements. Here, the AHVLA's update is a bit more informative, not least because it was accompanied by a separate invitation-to-tender document seeking a single CPD provider to offer the training on its behalf. It also includes comments on the outcome of an online consultation on OV training and revalidation that the agency undertook last autumn (see VR, October 19, 2013, vol 173, p 354).

Under the new arrangements, the existing OV panels will be discontinued and replaced by certificates of competence covering various OV activities. Somewhat confusingly, perhaps, given that the training and assessment will also be available to non-vets, these will be called Official Veterinary Qualifications (OVQs). Training for these qualifications will be available through the CPD provider appointed as a result of the tendering exercise. It is proposed that different modules will be available, covering subjects ranging from TB testing and the basics of state veterinary medicine through to exports and certification for different species and animal products. The AHVLA hopes to sign a contract with a CPD provider in March and the modules will then be introduced incrementally over the next 12 months, starting with those for which it anticipates high demand, such as those covering TB testing and export certification. Although non-vets will be able to train and be assessed for the qualifications, only vets will be authorised to work as OVs.

The AHVLA reports that it has made a number of changes to the planned training arrangements as a result of comments received during last year's consultation exercise. These include the introduction of a separate self-contained module for companion animal practitioners, to make the system less onerous for those working in the small animal sector; greater emphasis on controlling the cost of the training than might otherwise have been the case; and changes to the transitional arrangements so that existing OVs will no longer be required to revalidate their competence immediately. Instead, they will be expected to do so within the revalidation periods specified for the various OVQs. These range from five years in the case of, for example, the proposed qualifications relating to companion animal exports, to one year in the case of TB testing.

Plot twists such as this may be helpful but seem relatively minor given the fundamental nature of the changes taking place. Also, given that a CPD provider has yet to be appointed and the practicalities of introducing new training arrangements, the timescales seem ambitious. Underlying all this is the continuing uncertainty surrounding the TB tendering exercise. As soap operas go, the OV saga may not have quite the mass appeal of, say, Coronation Street or EastEnders, but in some respects it is just as gripping: it will be important to keep up with the episodes to try to find out what happens next and, for the time being at least, no one can be sure about the outcome.

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