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IT looks as if Scotland's Rural College's (SRUC's) proposals for finding a ‘uniquely Scottish solution’ to the problem of ensuring effective disease surveillance in the face of tighter budgets and increased threat of disease could be turning into a uniquely Scottish row.
At the beginning of June, SRUC launched a six-week consultation on veterinary disease surveillance in Scotland, seeking views on proposals for changing Scotland's network of disease surveillance centres (DSCs) (VR, June 6, 2015, vol 175, p 583). The proposals have been developed following a review of veterinary surveillance published in 2011. Carried out under the chairmanship of John Kinnaird, a former president of NFU Scotland, this recommended, among other things, that a strategic management board should be established to set and implement strategy for veterinary surveillance in Scotland, and that laboratory services should be centralised, either within or close to one of Scotland's three main centres of veterinary research. It also recommended that the number of local DSCs in Scotland should be reduced, although it did not specify which of the eight centres might be closed. Instead, it suggested that this was a matter for the strategic management board, and listed a number of factors that should be taken into account before any structural changes were made (VR, November 19, 2011, vol 169, pp 538, 539-540).
In its recent consultation, SRUC has been seeking views on proposals for ‘what could be significant changes to service delivery at the Inverness and Ayr DSCs’, along with proposals to relocate the centres at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and also possibly Ayr. The proposals also involve strengthening the teaching links between the Ayr DSC and the University of Glasgow, and developing a centralised diagnostic laboratory at Edinburgh, aligned with the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. One of the options being considered is to close the Inverness DSC in the autumn of this year, with the region it serves instead being covered by the centres at Thurso, Aberdeen and Perth – and it is this proposal that is currently proving to be controversial. It has, for example, attracted the attention of the trade union Prospect and David Stewart, MSP for the Highlands and Islands (VR, July 4, 2015, vol 177, p 3), as well as upsetting vets and farmers. In its report in 2011, the panel chaired by John Kinnaird argued that any changes to the surveillance structure should be introduced gradually, and, according to a report last month in The Press and Journal newspaper, even Mr Kinnaird has voiced concern, describing the proposed closure as ‘utter lunacy’.1 Meanwhile, in a letter in this week's Veterinary Record, a group of local veterinary practitioners in the Inverness and Ross-shire area explain why they are opposed to the proposed closure and why, as a group, they are not prepared to carry out postmortem examinations on animals for the purposes of disease surveillance, as has been suggested by SRUC as a possible alternative if the Inverness DSC goes (see p 79).
It is interesting to compare this reaction in Scotland with the response to changes made to the surveillance structure in England and Wales last year, which resulted in eight of 14 centres carrying out postmortem examinations for disease surveillance purposes being closed down within the space of a few months (VR, June 7, 2014, vol 174, p 564). It would be wrong to say that these changes were not controversial (they were), and it may be that people in England and Wales have become more inured to the idea of services being cut. However, compared to what is now happening in Scotland, the level of protest seems relatively mild.
The row brewing in Scotland highlights the difficulties of maintaining and ideally strengthening disease surveillance at a time when the threat of disease is increasing and budgets are limited or being reduced, as did the changes in England and Wales. The benefits of continual surveillance have always been hard to quantify financially, but that doesn't make it any less important, as demonstrated only last week by confirmation of an outbreak of H7N7 avian influenza in Lancashire (see pp 57-58 of this issue). A key recommendation of the Kinnaird review, and an argument reiterated by the BVA in a response it has submitted to SRUC's consultation,2 was that existing systems and structures should be maintained until alternative arrangements had been proven to be effective. This, unfortunately, was not the case when changes were made in England and Wales, and it must be hoped that Scotland might benefit from what has been learned through subsequent experiences south of the border. In the meantime, it should not be forgotten that, for all the effort that is put into devising new structures and systems, it is people and their expertise that make things work and that, in a field as specialised as this, specific expertise needs to be maintained.
The arguments surrounding surveillance might not be unique to Scotland but, given the nature of its livestock industry and the areas that need to be covered, some of the problems are. SRUC's consultation only closed last week and it will be interesting to see how the proposals affecting Inverness and the other centres are taken forward in light of the response. Disease starts locally, and surveillance will always be necessary at local as well as at national and international levels. So far, Scotland seems to have had a better record on partnership working than appears to have been the case in England. It must be hoped that, in developing its proposals, SRUC manages to come up with a solution that can satisfy requirements at all three levels.