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Pulling it all together

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COMPARISON of the latest annual report from the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) with reports of previous years is interesting and shows just how much DEFRA’s approach to animal health issues has changed.‘Animal Health 2005: the report of the Chief Veterinary Officer’ has just been published and deals with developments up to the end of December.* Like previous reports, it contains a wealth of information relating to Britain’s animal health status, as well as providing an overview of the department’s activities and summarising developments in research. However, one of the most striking features of the report is the emphasis placed on strategy and on DEFRA’s relationship with its executive agencies and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. As 2005 saw ‘the first full year of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS)’, together with the establishment of the State Veterinary Service as an executive agency, this is not altogether surprising. However, it serves to emphasise how the Animal Health and Welfare Directorate in DEFRA is now primarily engaged in the development of policy, rather than policy delivery.

The AHWS, with its emphasis on working in partnership, pervades almost every page of the document, whether describing the launch of DEFRA’s strategic framework on bovine tuberculosis (TB) in March 2005, the response to the outbreak of Newcastle disease in Surrey in July, or contingency planning for avian influenza and other exotic diseases. In addition, a specific ‘strategic overview’ outlines progress with the AHWS, as well as with the related Veterinary Surveillance Strategy which will be so vital in identifying and preventing future disease outbreaks. A notable feature of this year’s report is the increased emphasis on international disease monitoring and risk assessment. This is entirely appropriate, and a chapter in the report provides useful background to the thinking behind the quarterly International Disease Surveillance reports in The Veterinary Record (see pp 676-678).

The importance of surveillance both nationally and internationally has been highlighted by concerns about avian influenza. However, as the report makes clear, there is a constant need to remain alert to, and be prepared for, the possibility of other exotic diseases. For instance, discussing bluetongue, the report notes that there are environments in Great Britain that are similar to areas where transmission of bluetongue virus has occurred in mainland Europe. It also notes that a survey for Culicoides species vectors of the virus in England and Wales in 2005 confirmed that potential vectors belonging to the Culicoides obsoletus and Culicoides pulicaris groups are ‘virtually ubiquitous’.

Bovine TB is the subject of the longest chapter in the report. Statistics and diagrams illustrate the extent of the problem and also give an indication of spending on DEFRA’s bovine TB programme; in the financial year 2004/05, this amounted to £91 million. As things stand, DEFRA does not consider eradication of bovine TB to be an achievable target. Its current aim is ‘to develop a new partnership based on the AHWS so that government and stakeholders can work together to reduce the economic impact of bovine TB and maintain public health protection and animal health and welfare’. By tailoring disease control policies to reflect regional variation in disease and risk, it aims ‘to slow down and prevent geographic spread of bovine TB to areas currently free of the disease, and achieve a sustained reduction in disease incidence in cattle in high incidence areas.’

There is better news in the chapter on TSEs, which explains how progress in controlling BSE has led to a change in the UK’s BSE status from high to moderate risk and replacement of the over-30-months scheme. As a result of these and other developments, the ban on British beef exports has since been lifted. This is a spectacular achievement, and one which would have barely seemed possible 10 years ago.

The CVO was officially designated as Veterinary Head of Profession for veterinary surgeons in government at the start of 2005. This involves being a ‘visible champion’ for the contribution made by veterinarians in DEFRA, its agencies and other government departments. Whether working in government or practice, vets, as the report makes clear, have a key role to play in delivering the AHWS, and the importance of this role should not be underestimated. The availability of vets to provide farm veterinary services, in particular, remains of concern, and the report explains how a Vets and Veterinary Services working group has been formed to work towards establishing ‘a more effective working partnership between the veterinary profession, government and livestock keepers, taking account of the challenges that face the profession and the changing needs of its customers’.

It is clear from the report that DEFRA still plans to update the Veterinary Surgeons Act: ‘We are waiting for parliamentary time to introduce a draft Bill to replace the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 to modernise the way in which the veterinary profession is regulated.’

Overall, the report gives a clear indication of the efforts being made to develop the AHWS. The continuing challenge is to ensure that the strategy can be delivered. Having separated policy development from policy delivery, there is a need for DEFRA to consolidate its relationship with its agencies and, if the strategy is to be successful, develop the partnerships with stakeholders that are still needed to pull it all together.

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