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Being prepared

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FOR the past few weeks, the main focus of UK news coverage has been on storms and flooding, with the weather dominating headlines to an extent not seen since foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) generated similarly extensive coverage in 2001. Internationally, the floods have not attracted anything like as much media interest as FMD did in 2001, perhaps because people in other countries have their own weather to contend with. In the UK, the flooding has also had an impact politically, with readers and viewers and all those affected by the floods being subjected to the unedifying spectacle of politicians and others desperately looking for someone to blame. The crisis, this time, has been caused by the weather, with concerns being expressed about just how well the country is prepared. However, looking beyond the immediate implications of the floods, which have clearly been significant for the many people affected, the experiences also raise questions about long-term plans to safeguard animal health and welfare. What if, as in 2001, the crisis had been caused by an animal disease outbreak? If it had, how well would the county have been prepared for that?

The comparison is relevant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that responsibility for flood defence and animal health both fall under the remit of the same government department, Defra, and, in both cases, operational responsibility is devolved to departmental agencies – the Environment Agency (and others) in the case of flood defence, and the AHVLA in the case of animal health. In terms of government, the use of agencies is intended to separate the development of policy from the delivery of policy and also to bring financial and other efficiencies. However, as illustrated in the case of the recent floods, they also provide opportunities to pass the buck and blame someone else when it starts to look as if things might be going wrong. The squabbling among politicians last week was not just unseemly; it raises important questions about lines of command and where responsibilities for particular activities lie.

The budgets of Defra and its agencies have been significantly reduced over the past few years, and it has been suggested that cuts at the Environment Agency may have contributed to the recent crisis. The AHVLA's budget has also been cut, resulting in significant changes in the agency, which is currently trying to develop new ways of working to help compensate (VR, April 20, 2013, vol 172, p 406). These are still very much in development (VR, January 4, 2014, vol 174, p 2), and, with some of the cuts already being implemented, this must raise uncertainties about how well essential activities such as disease surveillance can be maintained in the meantime (VR, December 14, 2013, vol 173, p 564).

Defra has devoted much effort to disease contingency plans since 2001, and has also tested them in simulation exercises, and there can be no doubt that these plans have been improved as a result. However, given changes in the structure of veterinary practice in recent years, as well as changes in the AHVLA and the efforts currently being made to change the working relationship between practitioners and the state, one can't help wondering whether sufficient veterinary personnel would be available to deal with a rapidly developing large-scale disease outbreak like FMD in 2001, if such an outbreak occurred tomorrow.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said last week that money would be ‘no object’ in the flood relief effort, eliciting some surprise among commentators given the Government's emphasis on austerity in recent years. It must be hoped that one outcome of the floods is a realisation that, in the long run, it is cheaper and less disruptive to prepare for and try to prevent emergencies than it is to have to respond to them. This is as true for animal health as it is for flood defence, and appears so obvious, but it seems to be a lesson that must be repeatedly relearned.

Over the next few months, political energy and a great deal of practical effort will have to be devoted to the floods and repairing some of the damage that has been done. While this will clearly be a priority for Defra, it must not be allowed to detract from the department's priorities relating to animal health, including efforts to tackle bovine TB. Money may be no object with regard to flood relief, but it usually has to come from somewhere, and care must be taken to make sure that animal health does not lose out as budgets are allocated in the future. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that, while the UK has been cutting expenditure on activities such as veterinary surveillance, the Federal Government in the USA seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The Farm Bill signed by President Barack Obama earlier this month includes specific funding provision for the US National Animal Health Laboratories Network to help develop its disease surveillance and emergency response system (see p 184 of this issue).

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