Scientists warn of more disease outbreaks if vets’ labs are shut

Have your say

More than nine in 10 farms will need to have access to post-mortem facilities within one hour if the Government’s plans to change the way animal disease is monitored are to work, an independent report has claimed.

A report by the Surveillance Advisory Group (SAG) into Defra’s plans to shake-up the way diseases such as foot-and-mouth are detected said that the current surveillance network needs to expand.

Defra announced last year that the surveillance system, currently running at a cost of £10m per year would have to fall to £6m by 2014 as it wrestles with budget cuts of 40 per cent.

About 50 per cent of holdings have access to a post-mortem facility or collection point within an hour’s travel time, which the SAG says needs to expand to 95 per cent.

The move is seeing half of all of the animal health laboratories closing, including one in North Yorkshire, and has proved controversial with England’s top vets who say that the reforms could leave the country more vulnerable to future outbreaks.

The SAG also wants to see the creation of species-based centres of expertise providing in-depth pathology and disease investigation services and “a focus for surveillance information management, analysis and dissemination”.

SAG chairman Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary epidemiology at the Royal Veterinary College, also recommended less reliance on post-mortems to detect new disease threats, instead engaging with farmers earlier.

The proposals were largely welcomed by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the Defra body behind the changes.

Its chief executive Catherine Brown said the recommendations “set the scene for a progressive move towards a sustainable surveillance system”.

However president of the British Veterinary Association Carl Padgett said the proposals were just the start of a longer process, but should have been announced before AHVLA’s announcement it planned to close eight of 16 animal health laboratories last year.

Mr Padgett said: “The report has progressed the thinking about surveillance delivery and overall the Group has set out a very clear direction for the future.

“The number one recommendation to ensure 95 per cent of holdings have access to a post-mortem facility or collection point within an hour is ambitious but essential. If it is achieved we can significantly widen and improve access to the whole surveillance system.

“We welcomed the establishment of the SAG but were concerned that it was a case of the cart being put before the horse as AHVLA had already announced rationalisation plans for veterinary laboratories in England and Wales.

“The SAG has had a very limited time to consider the issues and unfortunately has not had access to the necessary information to flesh out its recommendations.

“This report is just the start of the process, and should have happened before the rationalisation plans were announced.

“The next stage must be for these proposals to be fully costed in an open and transparent way before decisions are made about the future.

“The overall aim must be to develop and enhance our surveillance system for future animal and human health and we may need to think much more innovatively about how we fund and deliver it.”

Ms Brown said she hoped to improve “the surveillance outcomes that we achieve, while also offering improved value for money and delivering better access to the surveillance service for a wider range of farmers and private veterinarians”.

“The recommendations of the group have set the scene for a progressive move towards a sustainable surveillance system,” she added. “It gives us a clear direction of travel, and whilst it does not give us all the answers, we will be able to build on the recommendations.

“We have some big challenges ahead in terms of implementation, but the service we are able to provide in the future will be greatly improved, as we aim to improve very significantly on our current 50 per cent geographical coverage.”