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AN announcement from Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) last week that it intends to maintain a veterinary postmortem facility at Inverness is welcome on at least two counts. First, it means that an essential disease surveillance facility will be retained in the area, when previously this was under threat. Secondly, it shows that organisations and governments do sometimes take notice of what people say during consultation exercises when it is not always clear these days that this is the case.
It is almost exactly a year since, in June last year, the SRUC put forward proposals for changing the network of disease surveillance centres that it runs on behalf of the Scottish Government, with a view to providing ‘a uniquely Scottish solution to the problem of tighter budgets and increased disease threat’. The plans had been drawn up following a review of veterinary surveillance in Scotland undertaken some five years previously. Chaired by John Kinnaird, a former president of NFU Scotland, this had recommended that laboratory services in Scotland should be centralised (either within or close to one of Scotland's three main centres of veterinary research), and that the number of local disease surveillance centres should be reduced. The Kinnaird review did not say which of Scotland's eight local centres should close, suggesting instead that this should be a matter for a strategic management board and specifying 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 setting out its proposals in a consultation letter last year, SRUC indicated that options being considered for changing the surveillance network included closing the disease surveillance centre at Inverness, with the region it serves being covered instead by centres at Aberdeen, Thurso and Perth, along with proposals to relocate the centres at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and also possibly Ayr. The proposals also involved strengthening links between the centre at Ayr and the University of Glasgow, and developing a centralised diagnostic centre at Edinburgh aligned with the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (VR, June 6, 2015, vol 176, p 583).
A number of these proposals attracted comment, but it was the proposal to close the centre at Inverness – planned to take place in the autumn of 2015 – that proved most controversial, not only upsetting vets and farmers, but also prompting opposition from the trade union Prospect and local MSPs. Local veterinary practitioners indicated that they would not be prepared to provide alternative postmortem examination services in the area if the Inverness centre closed, and even Mr Kinnaird was opposed to the plan, describing the proposed closure as ‘utter lunacy’ (VR, July 18, 2015, vol 177, pp 56, 79). In a report summarising the responses to its consultation published last August, the SRUC somewhat ruefully reported that there was ‘strong opposition’ to the proposal to close the centre and that private veterinary surgeons in the area were ‘united in their opposition to their providing [alternative] postmortem services to their clients’ (VR, August 15, 2015, vol 177, pp 160, 161). In October it was reported that plans to close the centre had been put on hold and would be reconsidered (VR, November 7, 2015, vol 177, p 454).
Giving an update on its plans in its announcement last week, SRUC confirmed that it would be maintaining surveillance facilities in Inverness and also Ayr, with services being tailored ‘to fit best’ with the requirements of client groups in the light of feedback it had received. It says that, in Inverness, it will be investing in a new postmortem facility for the region, which it anticipates will be ready by the middle of next year. Potential sites for the new facility are being investigated and the location will be determined on the basis of ease of access for farmers and crofters in the region. The current Drummondhill site is to be put up for sale but the Veterinary Services team will work from this site until the new site is ready. In the meantime, SRUC Research and SAC Consulting staff are being moved to new facilities on Inverness Campus.
In Ayr, SRUC plans to develop the existing facilities on the Auchincruive Estate in order to co-locate both veterinary and consulting staff. Meanwhile, it says, it will work with the University of Glasgow to facilitate the investigation of livestock disease in the west of Scotland, improve the availability of surveillance information to researchers and other stakeholders, and improve teaching resources for undergraduates.
The development of new facilities will mean changes at both sites but SRUC says it does not envisage any interruption of services in the interim.
The Kinnaird review recommended in 2011 that, while there was scope for rationalising services, this should be done gradually without jeopardising the delivery of surveillance and in a way that was sensitive to local conditions and needs. The reprieve for postmortem services in Inverness is reassuring as it would seem to meet those requirements in all three respects. The approach being taken in Scotland certainly seems to differ from that applied in England and Wales where, in 2014, the number of veterinary investigation centres was cut by more than half in the space of a few months, despite many concerns being raised (VR, June 7, 2014, vol 174, p 564). Maintaining adequate surveillance in the face of tighter budgets and an increasing threat of disease remains challenging. It will be interesting to see how the changes confirmed in SRUC's update last week fit in with what results from the rest of the proposals set out in last year's consultation letter and with Scotland's surveillance strategy generally.