Leaders of profession should be shouting from rooftops... - Veterinary Practice
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Leaders of profession should be shouting from rooftops…

Periscope continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

IT would be easy to say that we’ve
heard it all before and that it will
blow over like previous outcries.
And yes, it almost certainly will fade
into the background and be
forgotten about until … well until
the proverbial hits the fan and
someone else decides that those
who came before them were too

What am I talking about? The
closure of seven of the remaining 14
of AHVLA’s veterinary laboratories in
England and Wales.
DEFRA is quoted on the
BBC website as saying that
the cuts are part of an
“improved approach”. An
“improved approach” to
what would be my question. It appears
to me to be a blatant cost-cutting
exercise with little thought for the
possible consequences. Ostriches and
sand spring to mind.

It is not just me who has come to
this conclusion. The Royal College of
Pathologists has been reported in the
national news to be calling for an
urgent review of the plans, suggesting
that to follow them through would
pose a risk to human health. They cite
the fact that BSE was first identified in
Veterinary Investigation Laboratories as
evidence to support their view.

Short memories

Those in Government and in positions
of power at the head of the AHVLA
clearly have short memories. In the
FMD outbreak of 2001, part of the
difficulty of responding quickly to
disease reports was the fact that many
Animal Health offices had been closed
in the preceding years, presumably as part of somebody else’s “improved

There was a lack of manpower on
the ground and large distances to travel
and a real lack of local knowledge and
engagement with the farming
community. A State Veterinary Service
that had once been the envy of the
world was reduced to something of a
laughing stock. We all know the mess
that unravelled as a result.

The argument that one cannot
spend money in order to prepare for every worst case scenario continues to
prevail in the corridors of power. It has
happened throughout history; note the
unprepared state of Britain’s armed
forces prior to the start of the Second
World War.

Short-term thinking

However, the political system that
governs us, by its very nature,
encourages short-term thinking by
those at the top because that is what
most of us judge them on when it
comes to the polling booth.

Cost-cutting is the order of the day
but it is dressed up in terms such as
“rationalisation”, “restructuring”,
“modernisation” or, even more
laughably, as an “improved approach”.

So what difference will it make if
seven of AHVLA’s laboratories close?
There will almost certainly be fewer
post-mortems performed on fallen
farm stock and fewer disease
outbreaks will be investigated by trained pathologists.

There will be less interaction between private
veterinary practitioners and
AHVLA agency staff, and
consequently less exchange of
information between those in
the front line and those
monitoring farm animal disease
behind the scenes.

Slowly, slowly, the AHVLA
will become ever further out of
touch with the reality of British
farming and will eventually become an

Why does this matter? Firstly, there
will be an obvious reduction in
preparedness and resilience for dealing
with major incursions of exotic disease
such as FMD, the swine fevers, and
avian influenza.

One could argue that is a price
worth paying since the likelihood of
any of these occurring in the next one,
two or even five years is (whilst
completely unquantifiable regardless of
what the epidemiological modellers tell
us) probably not that great.

However, the world is a rapidly
changing place. When those in power
recently decided to cut costs, sorry,
develop an “improved approach”, and
reduce the size of Britain’s regular
army, they could not
have envisaged that in
the early part of 2014
there would be Russian
troops massing on the
border of an Eastern
European country.

events happen

If history teaches us
anything, it should be
that unpredictable events
happen. If we could
predict the future then
life would be relatively
simple, if a little dull, and
there would be no need to spend more
on anything than was absolutely

As an example, that £500 million
stockpile of now apparently worthless
Tamiflu would never have needed to
be, well, stockpiled.

It is, however, the unpredictability
of events that should concern us all.
We are now used to going to the
supermarket at any hour of the night
or day and finding the shelves groaning
under the weight of food. Obesity in
the general population of the UK is
rampant and is one of the big human
health issues of our time.

It is not guaranteed to remain ever thus. Maintaining security of food
supply is no mean challenge. I suspect
that those tasked with the job make
huge assumptions that international
relations will remain cordial and that
ships, trucks and planes will continue to
deliver all manner of foodstuffs to our
airports and docks.

More spending needed

Those Russian troops in that far away
place called Ukraine should make us
sit up and take note. Which is why,
rather than reducing spending on the
likes of animal disease surveillance, we
should as a country be increasing that
spend in order to build on and further
develop our expertise in this field.

Animal and human disease is not static. It is part of the
same evolutionary
process that has put
us all here in the first
place and it will
continue to surprise
and scare us. Who, 50
years ago, would have
predicted BSE, HIV
virus, the revival of
M. tuberculosis and M.
? Or the
crossover of avian
influenza and swine
influenza to the
human population?

These are all
serious warnings that should alert us to what could happen and what we
should be doing to prepare ourselves
and to mitigate the risks. The
surveillance and control of animal
disease is fundamental to both food
security and human health and is too
important for us to allow accountants
and special advisers to hold sway on
its future direction.

Leaders of the veterinary
profession should be shouting from
the rooftops against this short-sighted
decision to close Veterinary
Investigation Laboratories and not rely
on the Royal College of Pathologists
to speak out on our behalf.

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