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Contingency plans in context

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FOR a time it looked as if the performance might take place before the rehearsal but, as this issue of The Veterinary Record went to press, it seemed that this would not be the case. Exercise Hawthorn – an exercise to test Great Britain’s contingency planning for an outbreak of avian influenza – was scheduled to take place on Wednesday and Thursday this week and, by the time anyone reads this, will already have taken place. No-one will need reminding of the pertinence of the exercise, which was brought forward to April having originally been planned for June (VR, February 18, 2006, vol 158, p 245). Statements on DEFRA’s website emphasising in bold type that ‘Exercise Hawthorn is a simulation exercise only – Great Britain is free of avian influenza’were presumably designed to avoid confusion, but they also served to reinforce just how topical the subject remains.

As described by DEFRA earlier this week, the exercise followed a series of table-top exercises and workshops that started in October last year and was intended to test contingency plans and operational instructions for dealing with an avian influenza outbreak in poultry. It would be based around a hypothetical outbreak involving H5N1 virus in a high-density, outdoor, free-range production unit in Norfolk during March, in the middle of the annual human flu cycle. It would be set three days into the outbreak and would focus primarily on controls for eradication of the disease from the domestic bird population, including reducing the risk of spread within the animal population. It would also test controls for minimising the risk of a human pandemic strain emerging and the human occupational health issues arising from a zoonotic infection. There would be no on-farm activity during the exercise, which would test a full day of the ‘battle rhythm’ set out in DEFRA’s Exotic Animal Disease Generic Contingency Plan and the adequacy of command structures at different levels. Lessons would be identified from the exercise and a report published in the summer.

DEFRA has devoted much effort to developing, testing and refining its contingency plans since the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak of 2001, and this is to be applauded. However, as always, concern must remain about how well plans will translate into action in the field. Procedures were tested for real during last year’s outbreak of Newcastle disease in pheasants in Surrey, which, in the event, was quickly controlled. This is not to say that problems were not encountered, as DEFRA itself acknowledged in an admirably frank analysis of how things were handled: ‘Since 2001, many lessons have been learnt that have helped to shape our current policies, contingency plans and operational instructions. However … it is clear that some of the lessons that were learnt in 2001 need to be relearned and applied much more transparently across the entire sphere of our emergency preparedness work, particularly with regard to the way that we communicate with each other, our stakeholders, and the public’ (see VR, February 18, 2006, vol 158, pp 213-214). Command structures and ‘battle rhythms’ are important, but also important is what actually happens on the ground.

Contingency plans cannot be viewed in isolation, but need to be considered in the context of the UK’s overall Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS), and the changes taking place in agriculture and veterinary practice, which provide the backdrop against which efforts to develop and apply the strategy are being made. Concerns about the rate of progress with the strategy, and about the future availability of farm animal veterinarians to help implement it, have already been expressed in this journal (VR, March 4, 2006, vol 158, p 281) and will not be repeated here. However, it is worth re-emphasising that widespread application of veterinary farm health planning, with the involvement of local practitioners, will be pivotal to the successful implementation of the AHWS, and to achieving the holistic approach to disease surveillance, prevention and control that is needed, not just for diseases like FMD and avian influenza, but for emerging and endemic diseases, too.

DEFRA is not unaware of this, and a current initiative involving the BVA divisions, which aims to find ways of encouraging a wider uptake of veterinary farm health planning, is welcome (VR, March 4, 2006, vol 158, p 309). However, it is ironic that, at a time when DEFRA is seeking to strengthen contingency planning and improve animal health and welfare generally, it is also intent on shifting more of the costs of animal disease control on to the livestock industry (VR, December 3, 2005, vol 157, p 717). Options on cost sharing, including the introduction of a levy as well the possibility of insurance against future disease outbreaks, are currently being considered by a government/industry working group and will be the subject of a formal consultation exercise later this year. Increased costs are the last thing farmers need at present, and this strategy can at best be described as counterproductive. However, if, as seems likely, the Government is determined to press ahead, it would seem sensible to include financial incentives to encourage the uptake of farm health planning as an integral part of whatever mechanism is adopted.

The Government continues to pursue different elements of the AHWS separately, in a way that is not always helpful. There is a pressing need to pull the various strands together, and to create a coherent whole.

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