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Doing things quickly

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‘IF IT were done when ’tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly' Macbeth says to himself when deciding to assassinate Duncan in Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth. The AHVLA seems to be applying much the same principle to closing some of its veterinary surveillance centres, following an announcement about its plans for the future of scanning surveillance in England and Wales last December (VR, December 14, 2013, vol 173, p 564, pp 565-566). One can only hope that the consequences don't turn out to be so serious.

The AHVLA certainly seems to be acting quickly on its plans, which will result in the number of AHVLA centres carrying out postmortem examinations for surveillance purposes in England and Wales being cut from 14 to six. In an update posted on its website this week, it gives details of when surveillance activity at each of the centres earmarked for closure will stop, as well as details of facilities for transporting carcases to the remaining centres that might be provided subsequently.1 In the case of the Truro centre in Cornwall, surveillance activities may already have ceased by the time this issue of Veterinary Record appears (they were scheduled to stop on March 21). The AHVLA's carcase transportation service from Truro to the Starcross centre in Devon will continue until September, by which time the AHVLA hopes to have contracted a third-party supplier to provide either expert postmortem examination services locally or a carcase transportation service in the area.

Making use of external providers forms an important part of the AHVLA's plans for surveillance across England and Wales. As its update explains, these involve retaining ‘a geographically well distributed, but smaller, network of AHVLA postmortem examination facilities’, supplemented by ‘the procurement of additional providers of investigation services to enable a large increase in the number of farm animal postmortem examinations carried out by the non-government sector’. At present, it is not clear who these providers will be, but the AHVLA announced this week that, following useful feedback from a supplier day it held in January, it plans to issue invitations-to-tender for ‘providers of postmortem examination services to serve, in particular, geographical areas less accessible to the remaining AHVLA surveillance centres’ by the end of this month. It expects these providers to be supplying these services by September. It also plans to invite tenders for the provision of carcase transport services this month, again for implementation by September, and will be running the two tendering exercises concurrently.

Surveillance activity will cease at the AHVLA centres at Luddington and Preston in April, and at Newcastle by the end of June. It will continue until September at Langford and Sutton Bonington (pending the outcome of the tendering exercise), while the Winchester site could remain open until April 2015. Carcase transport services, including a service from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen, will continue to be provided by the AHVLA from most of these centres until September, although the agency will stop running a van collection service from Winchester at the end of this month.

Ever since it embarked on its surveillance project, the AHVLA has argued that the aim is to create ‘a new, more effective and financially sustainable surveillance system, including improving access through better geographical coverage and by developing better specialist skills and knowledge’. At the same time, with Defra and the AHVLA suffering significant cuts to their budgets, it has always been clear that the reorganisation is also being financially driven, and the speed with which surveillance centres are now being closed serves to confirm that this is the case. Throughout the review, this journal has argued that the existing structures should not be dismantled before new systems are up and running (see, for example, VR, January 5, 2013, vol 172, p 2), but, unfortunately, that is precisely what is happening. Centres are being closed even before the terms of the tendering exercise have been announced and, as things stand, no one can be sure that the replacement services envisaged will materialise.

The AHVLA notes in its update that it is currently exploring, with universities and other potential training providers, the development of training in first-opinion pathology for private veterinary surgeons to undertake diagnostic postmortem examinations for livestock keepers. It also notes that, in the next few weeks, it will be carrying out a survey to assess the likely demand for such training among veterinary practitioners and what training is specifically needed. The idea that private practitioners will undertake more postmortem examinations themselves represents an important component of its model for surveillance and such training might reasonably be regarded as essential. However, it will inevitably take time to develop and complete, and the fact that it is only being talked about now merely adds to the impression that the changes are being rushed through.

It may well be, as has been suggested, that the proposed model provides an opportunity ultimately to strengthen surveillance and presents new opportunities for practitioners, and it may also be true that, given all the budgetary cuts, the previous arrangements were unsustainable. However, just at the moment, it feels as if holes are being created in the surveillance structure, with no guarantee that these will be filled.

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