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150 years and counting

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THE state veterinary service celebrated a significant birthday last week, with October 15 marking the 150th anniversary of government veterinary services in the UK. In a news story on its website, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), which is responsible for the delivery of most government veterinary services nowadays, outlined some of its current activities, which range from disease surveillance and the identification of ‘exotic’ diseases to providing animal health advice and helping to eradicate bovine TB. Nigel Gibbens, the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer, pointed out that the veterinary profession plays a crucial role in protecting the UK from disease threats, therefore allowing its food and farming industry to thrive. He also pointed out that, having been founded on the protection of animals in agriculture, based on a strong foundation of veterinary science, state veterinary medicine ‘has expanded significantly from these roots, to a modern emphasis on threat identification and mitigation – protection and prevention being better than cure.’

A link from the news story on the APHA's website provides access to another webpage listing significant ‘milestones’ in the history of state veterinary medicine. These include, in the 1980s and 1990s, identifying and dealing with BSE, and, in 2001, dealing with the devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. There have been numerous other examples over the years but, more than any others, these two outbreaks perhaps best illustrate why strong systems of disease surveillance, and a strong state veterinary service, continue to be necessary.

The state veterinary service was established in 1865 in response to an outbreak of rinderpest which was devastating cattle populations at the time but has since been eradicated globally (VR, December 17, 2011, vol 169, pp 650-652). As such, it represents an early example of state intervention in disease control. The principles applied to controlling the outbreak of rinderpest were subsequently applied to other diseases considered to be of national significance, leading to the system of controls that is still in place today.

Throughout the past century and a half, the interaction and working relationships between the state and private veterinary sectors have played an important role in the way the veterinary profession has developed in the UK. However, the nature of that relationship has changed over the years, as has the extent to which governments have been prepared to intervene. It is currently changing particularly rapidly. At a time when government intervention is less fashionable than previously, not just in the UK but in other countries too, it becomes all the more important to find new ways of working to counter the threat posed by disease.

The rate of organisational change in the provision of state veterinary services in the UK is illustrated by the timelines on the APHA's website. In 1995, the Central Veterinary Laboratory and the Veterinary Investigation Service, having long been part of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, were merged to form a new agency, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) which would operate at arm's length from government. In 2005, the State Veterinary Service also became an executive agency of government. In 2007, in a move decried by Veterinary Record at the time, the word ‘veterinary’ was dropped from the agency's title, as it was rebranded Animal Health (VR, March 31, 2007, vol 160, p 417). In 2011, Animal Health and the VLA were merged to form the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA). In a further reorganisation just three years later, the AHVLA was merged with parts of the Food and Environment Research Agency to form the APHA.

The past few years have also seen changes in the agencies' working relationship with private practitioners who undertake official veterinary activities on behalf of the state. Earlier this year, following a competitive tendering exercise in 2014, the APHA awarded contracts for the delivery of TB testing and other official veterinary services to a small number of private delivery partners who, working with local practices, are now responsible for organising the delivery of these services in England and Wales.

It can be argued that the development of policies and the delivery of those policies are two different things and that there are benefits in keeping them separate; indeed, this formed part of the rationale for establishing arm's length agencies. At the same time, with responsibility for delivery increasingly being delegated, those directly involved become further removed from the centre of things, potentially making it harder for them to contribute to the development of policy, and potentially (although not necessarily) making activities harder to coordinate and control. With the appointment of private delivery partners, responsibility for activities that were once considered firmly in the realm of government is now being transferred to the private sector.

There have been significant changes, too, in the arrangements for disease surveillance. In 2014, following a review of surveillance initiated in 2012, the AHVLA closed eight of its 14 regional centres carrying out postmortem examinations for disease surveillance purposes, as part of a wider plan to strengthen surveillance by making more use of private practitioners and external service providers. While the new model for surveillance might make sense in theory, the new arrangements are still being developed and have still to prove their worth.

These and other changes are partly ideological. However, they are also being financially driven, not least as a result of the Government's comprehensive spending review in 2010, in which Defra and its agencies suffered substantial cuts. With further cuts anticipated in this year's spending review, it is difficult not to be worried about what happens next.

As well as recording some of the agencies' successes in dealing with disease outbreaks, the timelines on the APHA's website also mention some of its scientific achievements in relation to, for example, BSE, ‘swine flu’ and bovine TB. Scientific research is fundamental to efforts to control disease, and must remain an integral part of the agency's activities.

The approach to the provision of state veterinary services has changed considerably in recent years, and will no doubt continue to do so. The balance may be shifting but, whatever the extent of public and private involvement, a nationally and internationally coordinated approach to controlling disease will always be necessary and, indeed, is likely to become more so as, as a result of global changes, the threat of disease increases. The state veterinary service has played an integral part in the development of the profession over the past 150 years as well as fulfilling a crucial role in protecting both animal and human health. It must be hoped that it can continue to be in a position to do so for many years to come.

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