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By Josh Loeb and Georgina Mills
A Scotland-specific veterinary service could be set up amid concern that, as an executive agency of Defra, the APHA is too focussed on England.
The move – which insiders insist is not related to the governing Scottish National Party’s drive for independence – could set up an APHA rival north of the border.
The Scottish government is set to carry out a scoping exercise after the idea was proposed by Scotland’s former chief vet Charles Milne.
In a report released earlier this month, Milne concluded that the idea of a new Scottish veterinary agency, provisionally called the Scottish Veterinary Service (SVS), constituted an ‘exciting opportunity’.
Currently in Scotland the APHA’s functions are limited to animal health and welfare operations – this includes maintaining the infrastructure for dealing with notifiable diseases and surveillance for bovine TB (bTB). Since devolution in 2000, all policy and legislative responsibilities for animal health and welfare sit with the Scottish government, meaning it is free to retain the current arrangement or change the delivery model.
It is not known what would happen to APHA workers in Scotland if the Scottish government decides to proceed with the SVS idea. However, some are understood to be privately concerned about their jobs.
Milne’s report, the result of desk-based analyses and face-to-face interviews, described how, despite the ‘GB approach’ to operational delivery of animal health and welfare services having been successful for many decades, the APHA was too focussed on Defra’s priorities.
He cited examples of the Godfray review of bTB in England and the Stacey review of farm inspection and regulation in England. Both prompted concern over a ‘lack of focus’ on Scottish priorities.
Milne’s review concluded that one of the APHA’s strengths was the centralisation of some functions such as traceability and the issuing of export health certificates. However, in other areas, the ‘rigid application of processes’ is said to have had a ‘detrimental effect’ on Scotland.
For example, contracts for official veterinarians are appropriate for practices in England, which undertake vast amounts of bTB testing. But in Scotland – which is officially bTB free – they create an ‘uneconomic imbalance between income and the costs of training and validation’.
Three options were considered by Milne – retaining current arrangements with the APHA; creating a new SVS that would undertake the functions currently delivered by the APHA on behalf of Scottish ministers; and creating a new SVS that would provide a ‘bespoke’ model of delivery of animal health and welfare services in Scotland with a wider remit.
The development of a new bespoke SVS would best address the deficiencies identified
The review concluded that the development of a new bespoke SVS would ‘best address the deficiencies identified with the current arrangements and provide significant opportunities to benefit Scotland’s livestock industries in the future’.
The SVS, which Milne’s review recommends should report directly into Scotland’s chief vet, currently Sheila Voas, could have a wider function than that currently delivered by the APHA in Scotland.
Additional areas could include meat hygiene inspection, animal feed controls, scanning surveillance, aquatic disease control and bee health.
The review said that Scotland should, however, continue to use the Pirbright and Weybridge UK reference laboratories for the diagnosis of exotic notifiable diseases.
Rural affairs minister for Scotland Mairi Gougeon stressed that the possibility of an SVS was ‘not a foregone conclusion’. She said further work would now be done on the proposal.
BVA Scottish Branch president Kathleen Robertson welcomed Milne’s review, adding: ‘Any changes to the system will need to deliver enhanced benefits in terms of disease surveillance, biosecurity, and tackling antimicrobial resistance, as well as potentially addressing our veterinary workforce recruitment and retention challenges.
‘It’s essential that good partnership working between private vets and government vets continues to be supported, and that Scotland remains joined up with the rest of the UK in terms of sharing surveillance data and information without duplication of services already provided within a UK framework.’
Hector Low, a vet in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis who serves parts of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, said that ultimately the issue would come down to cost.
He said: ‘The Scottish government is extremely cash strapped at the moment. It hasn’t got enough money for its health service or education...to draw money out of that pot to invest in the veterinary service, I can’t see it happening. The bottom line is going to be funding. If anything they can come up with has zero cost implications – if there’s a way of doing the SVS that saves them money – then it might be a goer, but if there’s financial costs involved, it’s not going to happen.’ ●
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