Publications on the internet
UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1805-i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Environment, Food and Rural AffairS Committee
The rationalisation of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA)
Tuesday 31 January 2012
Zoe Davies, Charlotte Featherstone, Jan Loveridge
and Rudolf Reichel
Carl Padgett and Andrew Praill
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1-110
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.
Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.
Taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 31 January 2012
Miss Anne McIntosh (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Jan Loveridge, Co-ordinator, Cornwall Wildlife Trust Marine Strandings Network, Dr Zoe Davies, General Manager, National Pig Association, and Rudolf Reichel and Charlotte Featherstone, Veterinary Investigation Officers, AHVLA Thirsk Regional Laboratory, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good morning and welcome. Thank you very much indeed for participating in our inquiry on the rationalisation of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency. Just for the record, could you introduce yourselves, saying who you are and your position?
Jan Loveridge: I am Jan Loveridge. I am the Co-ordinator of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust Marine Strandings Network.
Dr Davies: I am Dr Zoe Davies. I am General Manager of the National Pig Association, which is the representative trade association for British pigs.
Rudolf Reichel: I am Rudolf Reichel. I am a veterinarian and a veterinary investigation officer at the regional laboratory in Thirsk.
Charlotte Featherstone: I am Charlotte Featherstone. I am also a veterinary investigation officer at the regional laboratory in Thirsk.
Q2 Chair: You are all particularly welcome, and, I say, especially those from Thirsk. Thank you very much for participating in our inquiry. I will start close to home, if I may, on the report that we understand was the basis of the decisions that have been taken. Can I ask when you first heard of that report?
Rudolf Reichel: That particular report was emailed to us on 20 July. That was the first time we saw it.
Q3 Chair: Last year?
Rudolf Reichel: Yes, last year.
Q4 Chair: Were you actually consulted on the contents and purport of the report?
Rudolf Reichel: Not prior to it coming out in that format. With the email there was a request for feedback on the report.
Q5 Chair: So did you have the opportunity to contribute to the decision making, or had the decisions already been made when you had sight of the report?
Rudolf Reichel: That is where things are a bit unclear. The report itself and the email that accompanied it stated that this was not yet a decision reached, but just a document of recommendations. But then it seems that the decision was reached, based on that, without further wide consultation on the various issues that are mentioned in the report.
Q6 Chair: Can I ask what you think is the single biggest impact of the proposed changes on Thirsk and the Veterinary Laboratory Service?
Charlotte Featherstone: The impact of the changes is the removal of the laboratory services from-
Q7 Chair: I mean on the ability to identify and treat diseases, presumably more nonnotifiable than notifiable. Could you clarify for us?
Charlotte Featherstone: The removal of the laboratory services will most probably reduce our ability to diagnose endemic disease promptly, and possibly accurately as well. That will then potentially reduce the ability to pick up new and emerging diseases that may be a threat to public health, and animal health and welfare.
Q8 Chair: Have you made these points internally? Were you given the opportunity to?
Charlotte Featherstone: Yes, we have raised these points with our managers numerous times, but I don’t see that that was necessarily a consultation, but more a response.
Q9 Chair: Do you think that there is a chance that the expertise will be lost for all time, or will the expertise be retained and just moved elsewhere?
Rudolf Reichel: I think you have to see something like a regional laboratory as a team that works together, with various people having specific, specialist roles. In our case, because we have been in existence for a long time, that has been built up over many years to become a good, successful team. If you then lose some of these scientists, it has an effect on us as veterinarians as well; although we stay there, it does break up the team. It is a bit like a good football team, where suddenly the manager says, "We have got no money left for a number of defenders. You still retain your star striker, but two defenders have gone off the field. Go and play." It has that sort of effect as we feel it at the moment. Obviously, because we have a long, good track record, we will try our utmost to make the best of the situation, because we know that the reality is such that savings have to be made, and certain of these decisions have to be made. Obviously we would like to see that the right decisions are reached, with the maximum effect for what is retained.
Charlotte Featherstone: I hold our laboratory staff in particularly high regard. We have 10 trained parasitologists, of whom eight are also trained microbiologists. The staff are diligent and experienced. There is a stable group of staff there, who are very engaged with the job that they do and the service that they provide to the Yorkshire community. The lab staff in Thirsk work particularly closely with the vets, and there is a real partnership there. They are familiar with the diseases that are present in Yorkshire, and also the prevalence of those diseases; they know to point out when something is just odd. That closeworking partnership favours the discovery of these new and emerging diseases, which are threats. The staff are also attuned to the needs of the region and regularly respond to cases that require extraordinary response, such as a disease outbreak, or when fast turnaround time is crucial: whenever animal welfare is at risk. All of this goes to providing a better service. We see this through the fact that the Thirsk laboratory has the highest throughput of carcasses of any of the regional labs. The Thirsk laboratory service is also a very important source of advice for vets on technical matters, and an important resource for disease response.
So my opinion on the loss of staff is that, first, a lot of time and resource have gone into training these staff in a skill which is not readily transferrable. The loss of expertise and experience, and the effort and training, is to me an outrage. There is certainly going to be a loss of resilience. We will have less of a pool of resource to respond to disease outbreaks; it is notable that many of our staff were diverted to national duties during the foot and mouth crisis in 2001. They provide as well a safety net to other laboratories, and a crucial resource to us in the post-mortem room and on farm visits. My opinion is that the vets at Thirsk will feel particularly isolated while their laboratory technical expertise is disappearing. That, to me, is not a satisfactory situation.
Q10 Chair: In your view, do you think an urban centre such as Newcastle can provide as appropriate a service to farmers as a rural centre such as Thirsk?
Charlotte Featherstone: In my view, no, it cannot.
Q11 Dan Rogerson: Having started off with a local MP, we will carry on with a Cornish input. I will direct this to Jan Loveridge. The specialism that exists in Truro is for marine mammal microbiology. The intention is that that should be transferred elsewhere. First of all, would you be content if that transfer were to take place?
Jan Loveridge: No, not at all. Marine mammal microbiology, and particularly bacteriology, is a very rare discipline. There are only three labs in the UK that specialise in marine mammal microbiology. One of those is based in Polwhele; it is ideally placed geographically, scientifically and logistically. Cornwall is a hotspot for stranded marine mammals, both cetaceans and seals. We receive about 25% of the total UK strandings. It makes sense for the lab to be there. That particular discipline and expertise have been built up over many years, and are not easily replaced. The Polwhele team has earned a national and international reputation for its work and has made a number of significant new findings in relation to the impact of micro-organisms on marine mammals in the South-West. We feel that those findings may be under threat if relocation takes place.
I should explain that the work that is done at Polwhele is part of a system, if you like, which begins with our team. We have a team of 140 volunteers all round Cornwall. We retrieve carcasses for post-mortem at the VLA. The results of those post-mortems go to the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, which is a DEFRA-funded project, and then on to Government. The work at Polwhele underpins this very effective system. We feel that the changes may have an adverse impact on the CSIP’s abilities to meet DEFRA requirements, not least because the organisms they are testing for are very fragile; they degrade very quickly or can become overgrown by other organisms.
I believe that the proposal is that the testing will become decoupled from the postmortems conducted at Polwhele, and the samples will then be sent to another lab for analysis. Our concern, and I believe that of the CSIP, is that those samples may degrade very quickly and so the micro-organisms may not be cultured at their destination. That is no reflection on the staff at the other lab, but it may illustrate that samples do degrade. The knock-on effect of that is that it could lead to false negative results, which have serious implications. That may give us misleading diagnoses of the cause of death, and that could ultimately lead to measurement decisions based on false data. It also means we may miss new and emerging diseases in the marine mammal population, and that has consequences for humans as well, because many of these diseases are transmissible to humans. It of course has consequences for our volunteer teams who handle these animals, and indeed colleagues in other organisations in Cornwall, such as the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, which rescues live stranded animals and seals, and the Cornwall Seal Group and the National Seal Sanctuary at Gweek. All of these organisations handle these animals.
Q12 Dan Rogerson: A couple of questions come to mind based on that. First of all, with regard to the risks that you have talked about there, such as things not being identified because of a time lapse or the lack of specialism, what sort of risks do you think we could be talking about there for the marine population, but also for humans? What would be the likely vectors, just so we can get an idea of what the work prevents at the moment?
Jan Loveridge: I mentioned new and emerging diseases. False negative results may hide the fact that there could be a higher incidence of disease in the marine mammal population. We may also miss diseases in animals that are new to the UK. Recently we had a dwarf sperm whale stranding in Penzance harbour, of all places, and that is the first record for the whole of the UK. Possibly as a result of climate change, we will see changes not only in the species that appear, but also perhaps in pathogens that appear as well. Therefore, we need to be testing accurately and speedily. Sending samples away does not facilitate that.
Q13 Dan Rogerson: You have talked about the volunteer work, which you are very much involved in as a network. What would the risk to that network be if there were not to be that direct access to veterinary and analysis skills? Do you think that that might then have an effect on the volunteers as well, in terms of what they do?
Jan Loveridge: The truth is that we don’t really know, because we don’t really know what is out there. There are some diseases we are particularly concerned about that can affect humans, particularly brucella, which is found in cetaceans and seals. Although our volunteers are trained and are aware of these risks, we also know that members of the public, tourists and so on have no hesitation in handling animals.
Q14 Dan Rogerson: I was thinking in terms of their motivation to carry on doing what they are doing: has there been any reaction among volunteers about whether they want to carry on and still be involved?
Jan Loveridge: Well, obviously, we would lose confidence in the tests. At the moment, we get that feedback if brucella is found as a positive, and relay that to our volunteers and to anyone who we know has handled that carcass. But yes, we would have concerns about it. Should this take place and then, as a result, post-mortem examinations be relocated or cease, we would not be able to transport carcasses to any other lab. I understand that the CSIP would not agree that carcasses should go to other labs for post-mortem.
Q15 Dan Rogerson: Finally, is it your understanding that it is just the work that is going, and that existing staff elsewhere will have to upskill and receive training to do the work, or is it your understanding that any staff will transfer to another location?
Jan Loveridge: As far as I am aware, some of the staff will be asked to relocate. Obviously that has cost implications, which I understand is one of the main reasons for all this rationalisation. The samples would still have to be sent from Cornwall to wherever that person has relocated to-in fact, that would be Devon-so there is the implication for degradation of samples.
Q16 George Eustice: As another Cornish MP, I would like to stick to the theme. I have a lot of sympathy for the arguments that you are making; Gweek Seal Sanctuary is actually in my constituency. However, when I pressed the Department on this previously, the answer that it came back with used this statistic: Polwhele has only tested four stranded marine mammals in the last year. That is their counter-argument. I wondered if you had any comment on that-whether it is correct or is an unlikely figure?
Jan Loveridge: As far as I am aware, Polwhele has been testing for micro-organisms for 20 years, as part of the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme. We have been told that, on six occasions, brucella, which is a particularly insidious disease, has been cultured by the Polwhele team, but not at another laboratory. As I said earlier, that is no reflection on that laboratory, but it does illustrate that samples can degrade. It is a very serious disease, and if it goes unnoticed there are consequences not only for marine mammals, but for humans as well.
Q17 George Eustice: Do you know how many stranded seals, for instance, you send for testing to Polwhele in a given year?
Jan Loveridge: Not very many seals at the moment, because there is no funding for it. The CSIP is only funded by DEFRA for cetaceans, basking sharks and turtles, but a few seals are done. We ourselves have recently received funding to have some post-mortems conducted on seals as well.
Q18 George Eustice: What is the main bulk of the work? Is it stranded dolphins?
Jan Loveridge: Yes, it is mostly cetaceans. Just to give you an idea of the scale of the thing, last year we recorded 100 cetaceans, of which 26 went to post-mortem. That is quite a high number. Since 1991, and the inception of the CSIP, we have recorded 2,136 cetaceans in Cornwall, about 25% of the UK total. Of those, we retrieved about 23% for post-mortem examination. Since 2000, which is I believe when post-mortems were first conducted on grey seals, we retrieved 707 seals, of which only 27 were sent for post-mortem examination. So there is a lot that we don’t yet know about diseases in seals.
Q19 Neil Parish: My question is for Dr Zoe Davies. The Pig Association memorandum expresses concern that the rationalisation will leave only one laboratory with significant pig-specific expertise. What are the risks, and how can they be mitigated?
Dr Davies: Thirsk has the second largest throughput of pig carcasses in the UK. Thirsk and Bury are in the most pig-dense areas, each with around a quarter of the national herd. Therefore, if you cut out one of those, there is obviously going to be an impact, whichever way you look at it. We recognise the fact that there has to be change, and that some rationalisation is inevitable. However, our key point is that we have to have effective surveillance; it is very important to the health of the sow herd in the UK. So whatever we end up with has to be fit for purpose. If you simply shear off half of what you have currently got, I don’t believe that that is what we will have, at the end of the day.
Neil Parish: What about actually getting the samples to the laboratories? Is there an argument that, if they have so far to go, their quality will not be as good by the time they get there?
Chair: I think we are coming on to that.
Q20 Dan Rogerson: Jan Loveridge has touched on this a little bit, but the issue goes across the areas of specialism. How important is it that diagnostic tests on samples are performed as soon as possible after post-mortem examination?
Rudolf Reichel: There are a lot of factors that you need to take into consideration to answer that question. In general terms, you would want to say "as soon as possible". Generally, when a situation arises that someone sees as important enough to bring material in to you, they tend to want the answer as soon as possible. That is one aspect. If you can do that, good. As the situation is at the moment, we cannot have a turnaround time of the same or next day on all the tests. Some are already sent away to be done in other places: for example, virology and biochemistry tests. That has been done for a number of years already. But with certain bacteriology and parasitology tests, you want the answer as soon as possible, because on the back of that rides animals that are ill and may need treatment. We may have one carcass in, but somewhere there could be 200 in a pen, where some have started dying and some are showing illness. They either want confirmation: "It is the disease we are expecting; we can use treatment x because it has worked in the past," or not. If that does not happen, and the situation worsens, they may have to decide, "We think it’s disease x, so we are going to treat." Because you treat vast numbers, we are not talking about two or three tablets; we are sometimes talking about tonnes of antibiotics going into the food chain. If that then turns out to be the inappropriate treatment, obviously that is quite important.
I am not saying that we can have that situation each and every time there is an illness. A lot of animals are treated without specific diagnoses being made to identify the illnesses. But when the sample comes in and the effort is made to do that, we will want to do the right thing, not add to the problem of inappropriate treatments.
Q21 Dan Rogerson: The veterinary profession has been trying to do a lot of work on cutting down on the use of antibiotics, for example, because of public perception and some criticism in the past.
Rudolf Reichel: Absolutely.
Q22 Dan Rogerson: There is also the issue of individual farmers; I’m in a TB hotspot area, for example, where they want as much information back as possible about what was found in a carcass, about lesions and those kinds of issue. I have heard that they are finding it much harder to get hold of that information and have to chase it, whereas in the past it would have been more readily available, so that is interesting. The other issue, which Jan was talking about, is the possible deterioration of samples. Is that something that is an issue? DEFRA has said it is routine to rely on remote lab testing in all sorts of spheres of science. Is that your experience and do you think it is a fair statement?
Rudolf Reichel: To say it is routine probably depends on which area or country you look at. Some countries have chosen that as the only way they can do it. Up to now, we had a different system. One could say that was for a reason, or one could say that we have been lucky or spoilt up to now to have had it like that. However, I think that it has worked for a reason, and was done for a reason. Certainly when the decision came that we were going to lose our scientists, and that certain tests like bacteriology and parasitology could not be done on the same site, our people got so concerned that one of our scientists proposed that we do a study, based on bacteriology, to see the effect of delaying things for 24 hours compared to culturing on the same day.
Q23 Dan Rogerson: That then brings us on to the point about deterioration of samples. What were the results of that? Did that analysis show anything? Or has that work not actually taken place; was it just a proposal?
Rudolf Reichel: That work has taken place, and in summary we can say for about 5% we did not pick up something we would have picked up if we did it on direct cultures.
Q24 Chair: Can I just press you on that? The problem is that, if the sample is couriered, it will not reach the lab to which it is being couriered until the afternoon, so it probably would not be tested until the next day. It is a delay of more than five hours; it is of 24 hours. Are you able to say that that is a risk, and how could that risk be mitigated if that was to happen?
Rudolf Reichel: The study was fairly small with regard to numbers, and over a short time span. It was more or less four weeks from the end of November to December. There was not time to do it for a longer period, so people may say it should have been done at different times of the year, with bigger numbers, to be really accurate. We can say that what we have picked up may just be due to natural variation. However, we picked up 5% where we saw that there could be a problem. With some bacteria-for example, some of the temperature-sensitive pig bacteria-we expected that, and we would expect to see the same with some of the brucella from marine mammals, although we have not had material to test that on.
Charlotte Featherstone: It is very important to note that this study was over a very short time scale.
Q25 Chair: And probably not when you would expect infection.
Charlotte Featherstone: Yes. For seasonal diseases, it would take only a small amount of our disease remit throughout the year. Other studies have also suggested that temperature of transport is incredibly important, particularly for the recovery of salmonella-and we do get a lot of salmonella of particular types-but we also know that bacteria such as Glässer’s disease are particularly labile and fragile. The recovery of Glässer’s disease will definitely be an issue.
Dr Davies: Our point was that this sort of thing should have been looked at before.
Q26 Chair: Before the decisions were taken?
Dr Davies: Quite.
Q27 Chair: You are convinced that it was not?
Dr Davies: There was no consultation with staff for a start.
Q28 Chair: On this key point?
Dr Davies: Yes.
Q29 Chair: You are absolutely sure of that? We just want to record it.
Dr Davies: Yes, and this sort of thing could have been looked at relatively simply and easily. One of the points we have is that the bacteria that causes swine dysentery is very culture-sensitive; therefore it is important that it is cultured as soon as possible, so we know what we are working with and important decisions can be taken on farm about how to deal with it. We have an issue with swine dysentery in Yorkshire at the moment. It is a very economically important disease that we need to get rid of. If you have to start sending samples away you may get inaccurate diagnoses, which is crucial.
Q30 Chair: Can I just draw your attention to this: DEFRA’s core contention is that it is routine to rely on remotelaboratory testing arising from post-mortems, with no perceived impact on test quality. Do you believe that that is the case and, if you do believe that to be the case, why would rationalisation have such a detrimental effect?
Dr Davies: There are lots of tests that are sent away and that is fine.
Q31 Chair: But they are not so sensitive?
Dr Davies: This is what we would suggest: that they identify those sensitive strains, or bacteria and viruses, and make sure that there are proper resources in place to be able to look at those. We are not saying, "We have to do all of the testing here." We are just saying that we should look at what we should be doing, and what we can send away.
Q32 Chair: In my view, you are the experts, so you could have come forward with proposals for rationalisation that would have saved the Government money, without risking any animal disease. Are you agreeing with that?
Dr Davies: Absolutely. DEFRA and AHVLA have a working group that they very quickly put together to look at surveillance. We hope to feed into that. We have a good relationship with them, but our point is that it could have been done first.
Q33 Dan Rogerson: It is interesting that Charlotte said that other studies have done this in more depth. Your colleagues have looked at this, in the short period of time that was available to do so. Are you able to point us now to what some of those studies are, or to write to us to let us know?
Charlotte Featherstone: I could direct you to a bacteriology study that has been done specifically looking at the recovery of salmonella in line with the National Control Plan samples for layer hens.
Dan Rogerson: Any information any of you have about studies across the field would be useful to have.
Q34 Amber Rudd: One of the advantages DEFRA identifies from the reorganisation will be to reintroduce weekend working, which will enable swifter turnarounds for samples. Do you agree with that?
Rudolf Reichel: That is a definite advantage. We used to have that. It does help, if you have cases coming in on a Friday, to be able to deal with them in an appropriate time span and get results out the next day if needed. We lost that for a time, which certainly made it difficult, because, for things that are done on Friday, it is not that you cannot get the result out the next day, but some tests you set off and then need to do another test within 24 hours, and that was problematic. That will definitely be a good thing. But obviously for places like Thirsk, where we have lost our LSD staff, even if there are people on the Saturday, because we send our samples away to be cultured for bacteriology and tested for parasitology, that still doesn’t get away from the 24-hour delay before the cultures are started.
Q35 Chair: Can I just return to swine dysentery in Yorkshire? Would you say that there is no special provision at the moment for these pig-specific organisms, were this rationalisation to proceed? Do you think that the pig population could be exposed?
Dr Davies: It is not just about swine dysentery. There are lots of other diseases out there that it’s very important that we identify rapidly so that we know how to deal with them. The rest of the country, where they are not protected by Thirsk or Bury, already has to send samples away, so we are just creating an even bigger risk. A hell of a lot of diseases are circulating out in the EU that we seriously do not want in this country. If you reduce the surveillance capability, then you increase the risk of those diseases coming into the country. We also have an internationally recognised breeding company group, sending out breeding stock all over the world, and it is vital to that group that it is able to prove diseasefreedom from a whole range of different diseases. If we don’t have that surveillance, then it may not be able to do that.
Q36 Chair: Do you believe that the proposed rationalisation is purely to save money, rather than to increase animal health?
Dr Davies: Initially it may have looked that way, because the first thing they came out with was about closing labs. Subsequently, working groups have been set up to look at effective surveillance and what is required. Ideally, we would like to sit down with a blank piece of paper and say, "What do we need, in terms of surveillance, to protect the country’s animal health?" That is what we would like to feed into and be a part of. I should also say that the Pig Health and Welfare Council, on which the NPA sits, has set up a working group to look specifically at the needs of the pig industry and surveillance. We will be feeding into the Animal Health VLA working group, and also the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England, on that.
Q37 Chair: Charlotte, with regard to something that you said earlier, do you think that Thirsk is sustainable if you take the scientists away?
Charlotte Featherstone: I do not.
Q38 Chair: Do you think that this is a ploy to-possibly next year, or the year after-close?
Charlotte Featherstone: Well, I would hope not, because Thirsk is particularly well located to serve the needs of Yorkshire. However, the fact will remain that to keep up submissions to Thirsk, which the surveillance relies upon, we need to maintain the relationship between the private veterinarian and the farmer. These relationships are built up on a basis of successful diagnoses of materials submitted to Thirsk. If we do not have these successful diagnoses, or there is a delay in the result so the farmer cannot actually treat his animals properly, these submissions will reduce. That reduces our surveillance for endemic disease and has a knock-on impact on picking up new and emerging diseases.
Q39 Neil Parish: Again, to the National Pig Association, you have raised concerns that, if the turnaround time is considered too slow for testing, farmers and vets will fail to take samples into the laboratory at all, preferring to treat on clinical signs only. You have also gone on to say that there is an increased "risk of new and notifiable diseases spreading undetected". I am interested about notifiable disease. We have been talking about weekend working. What happens at the moment if there is a notifiable disease? Does nobody test it? If foot and mouth arrived on a Friday afternoon or a Saturday morning, would it wait until Monday before it was analysed?
Dr Davies: The point that I was trying to make was that, if you are not spotting things or sending samples in, something could go undetected. The majority of the post-mortems and samples that vets are taking on farms are for common diseases. I would like to say, when I managed a farm, mine was the first farm that had classical swine fever during the 2000 outbreak. We had had a very severe wasting disease prior to that, and the symptoms were very similar to classical swine fever. If we had not had a very good vet on the farm, they may have missed it, because they were treating for the wasting disease rather than classical swine fever. As it was, they took samples and sent them to the VLA lab at the time.
Q40 Neil Parish: I can understand that, and we are down to making sure that vets actually see the problem on farm, to make sure that those samples are sent. But I am quite interested in the fact that at the moment a lot of these samples are not actually done over the weekend. In a way, this-dare I say it-really downs your argument about how long it will take to get samples to another laboratory, if, at the moment, over the weekend it takes two days to get there. Surely it needs to be done immediately. Is that not the whole argument?
Dr Davies: I think that if farmers or vets were concerned, they would take a live pig to the lab and it would be done there and then.
Q41 Neil Parish: Even over the weekend?
Dr Davies: Yes.
Rudolf Reichel: With regard to notifiable or exotic diseases, there is a slightly different system that does not necessarily rely on the regional laboratories to be open on a Saturday or Sunday. There would be a number of our former animal health colleagues on duty and available to take calls if there were any suspicions arising, and testing would be arranged for those samples. The vast majority of those types of test get done at the Weybridge laboratory as soon as possible. So that system is in place.
Q42 Neil Parish: A final question: does the science move on as to the testing and speed of testing? Is there an argument, rightly or wrongly, that some rationalisation would naturally take place? Science does move, and does not always remain the same.
Rudolf Reichel: Yes, there is definitely truth in that. There are constantly new, developing tests that can be done more quickly on smaller samples with fewer personnel, or more automated cases. It definitely happens. When this situation comes along, it does ask questions of the system: are there better ways of doing the things we are doing and are comfortable with? In general terms, we are looking at ways to move to better and more efficient methods.
Q43 Amber Rudd: We have discussed the failure to consult. We have had other submissions about that. Can you tell me whether any strategies were put in place to help staff who were no longer going to be at the laboratory, in terms of relocation elsewhere within the civil service?
Charlotte Featherstone: Staff who were not going to be retained were classified as surplus, and various redeployment options were given to them. In our experience, the staff have generally tried looking for alternative employment. An additional post-mortem room attendant job was offered to particular staff for redeployment. That has only just been confirmed and advertised last week, despite these staff being on the surplus register for a number of months.
Rudolf Reichel: I think the system has been put in place. Because we were not directly affected by it, we may not know all the details. Certainly there is a system in place. The specific problem in our area is that these are highly skilled, specialised people, so it is difficult for them to find a similar job within 10 or 20 miles, or commuting distance. It does make it difficult for them to be redeployed, unless they want to move to a different laboratory, which generally means moving house. These people may have families or partners working locally, as well, which makes that difficult. But that is the reality today.
Dr Davies: I was also led to believe-it was suggested-that staff could relocate to the laboratory at Newcastle, but at the same time they had a freeze on re-employment of new people, so it put people in a catch-22: they were told that on the one hand they could relocate, but on the other, they quite obviously wouldn’t.
Q44 Amber Rudd: So there were no new jobs at Newcastle, basically?
Dr Davies: As I was led to believe, yes.
Q45 Chair: I know you’ve answered this, Zoe, but I wonder if Thirsk would like to: if there had been a proper consultation, would you and other labs have enabled DEFRA to come up with a different, possibly better, plan for reducing costs anyway? Do you have an idea what that plan might have been?
Rudolf Reichel: I think to come up with a better plan to get this massive amount of cuts through would probably be difficult. But like we said, there are certain aspects that we think can hamper our diagnostic ability. If we had looked at those specifically, maybe some areas or centres would have been treated in a slightly different way. In our case, we may have said, "Yes, we will reduce the amount of scientists for certain things that can be moved away, but here are five or six key tests-either bacteriology or parasitology related to pigs or sheep that we see in our area-that we would like to retain, with this number of people." There seems to have been a bit of a move in that direction to work that out, but it is not fully finalised yet. That would have been one possible way to look at it in advance of making this blanket decision to remove all the LSD staff.
Jan Loveridge: I had a point about consultation. I believe that the CSIP and the Institute of Zoology were not consulted about the proposed changes. Obviously that has a major impact on their contract with the AHVLA. We are only talking about a staff of three at Polwhele, but it is a highly specialised team, as I have already explained; they make a major contribution to the data that go to DEFRA. I think that, had that consultation taken place, other possible routes or solutions to the problem may have emerged. However, they have not been given the opportunity to make suggestions.
Q46 Thomas Docherty: Back in December, the Minister said that there would be no formal impact assessment carried out, because "there is no impact on regulation and there is no increased cost to the end user". Do you agree with that?
Jan Loveridge: No, not at all. We were given the impression, from the replies that we received from the AHVLA to some of our letters-although we are still awaiting replies to a number of them-that cost saving was a major issue here, and the main reason for closing the lab at Polwhele. If you are talking about staff relocating, or, if they do not relocate, then travelling long distances-say from Cornwall to Devon and back-or staff being made redundant or taking early retirement, then obviously those costs are increased.
Q47 Thomas Docherty: But to the end user-that is to say, the farmers-will the cost rise?
Jan Loveridge: I beg your pardon, sorry.
Dr Davies: Effectively, you are losing expertise, so there will already be an increase in cost of that loss. We might not be talking in terms of finance, but we are talking in terms of crucial expertise in identifying and diagnosing disease. If you lose people who are able to identify new diseases, trends in existing diseases, then it will end up being a cost to the producer. He may be giving the wrong type of drug for a particular disease because of incorrect diagnosis, or he may have a disease that has started to change in the way that it spreads, or with new serotypes, where, if he had had earlier notice of that, he would have been able to change his management properly. It is not just about hard cash, in terms of whether tests will be done here or there; it is about costs in terms of loss. Cost of production will increase if people are not making the correct decisions on farm. It will cost them, one way or another.
Q48 Thomas Docherty: How do you measure that, though?
Dr Davies: It is exceptionally difficult to measure it directly. But let’s say you had an existing disease, but it had changed and there was a new serotype or new strain that had evolved, which required treatment with a different drug or different management procedure on farm. Obviously, it would be good to have as much intelligence and information as possible about that disease and how it manifested itself in the pig, in order to be able to treat it properly and get rid of it quickly.
Q49 Thomas Docherty: DEFRA has suggested a 75% reduction in demand for testing by AHVLA as part of its rationale for the rationalisation. I will direct this to AHVLA Thirsk. Do you agree that there has been a reduction in demand for testing, and, if that is the case, why is that?
Rudolf Reichel: I do not know the full details, but it is worthwhile trying to find out. It is a 75% reduction in the number of tests being done in terms of what we do now, but I feel that a fair or large percentage of that would be TSE/BSE testing, which is a highly automated test done by a small group of people. To see it in perspective and fully understand its implications, one may have to break that figure down to see what it is actually made up of. It could be that there is a large volume of tests done by a small number of people, but if we take that out of the equation it may look different. That is the global figure for the country, but one may have to look at it in more detail.
Q50 Chair: So you have not seen any breakdown of the figures?
Charlotte Featherstone: No. We have asked for a clarification on this. We are not entirely clear where the figure of 75% has come from. We know that there was a large amount of brucella testing, which was highly automated with a large throughput. We estimate 1 million tests, and I am sure that that is in the figure. But it is also acknowledged by the Laboratory Service that it is not surveillance for endemic disease that has necessarily caused the problem with tests. It could well be these national surveys for TSE, such as BSE, which may be outsourced, or the brucella testing.
Q51 Thomas Docherty: Can I just clarify this? You say that you have asked DEFRA for that information and the breakdown, is that correct?
Rudolf Reichel: Yes, that is correct.
Q52 Thomas Docherty: When did you ask them?
Rudolf Reichel: I cannot remember the exact date.
Q53 Thomas Docherty: Was it prior to or post Christmas?
Rudolf Reichel: I think prior to Christmas.
Q54 Neil Parish: I want to talk now about responsibility and cost sharing. The previous Government talked to farmers about cost sharing, and we are carrying on talking about it in the coalition Government. As far as the Pig Association is concerned, do you think that this rationalisation will make farmers less willing to adopt responsibility and cost sharing? Could you use it as an opportunity to invite farmers to-believe it or not-contribute more to the costs of local testing? I think it might be quite difficult to persuade some of them.
Dr Davies: You may say that, but as an industry we are already rolling out the National Pig Health Improvement Programme. That has surveillance at its very core, but it is also encouraging producers to collaborate and share information about herd health status. That surveillance information is currently being collected by the vets. I believe that responsibility for cost sharing is here; we are already doing it. The pig industry has always been at the forefront of wanting to collaborate, to get on and do things, and to involve Government in what it is doing as a part of that process. That is where we see the key. It is important that we are part of the rationalisation process; that AHVLA is working with the industry as part of the Pig Health Improvement Programme, so that surveillance is done in the most effective way and we get a really good strategy that will benefit everybody, rather than just looking to cut costs where we can. It is a very sensible way forward. I do not see that AHVLA would have any problems with that; it is simply finding the correct mechanism to be able to do it.
Q55 Neil Parish: The pig industry is a very efficient industry. It has had to be, over the years, because there has not been a lot of profit in pigs over many years; it fluctuates. At the moment, DEFRA is spending over £330 million a year on animal health. When I meet farmers, not only are they worried about the cost sharing; they are also slightly worried about the cost of delivering animal health. Is there not an argument that farmers are just as likely to look at efficiency savings as DEFRA itself?
Dr Davies: I think we need to look at it in terms of the health of the national herd, rather than just looking at who is trying to cut costs where.
Q56 Neil Parish: It is not a case of cutting costs. It is a case of making sure that the money you spend is actually delivering what you want it to deliver. I do not know that anybody is absolutely convinced that that is the case at the moment.
Dr Davies: That is what we are trying to deliver with the Pig Health Improvement Programme. Surveillance is a very important part of that, not just on farm, but also the testing that goes back to the laboratories. If we can work with Animal Health VLA to look at that, and to see where we can make things cost-effective, the industry and the pig farmers will accept that, rather than just leaving it at the status quo. They are getting something better in the long run for their money.
Q57 Neil Parish: Going back to making sure that you can deliver a seven-days-a-week service, I would suggest that that has to be the argument and part of the case for keeping local laboratories open.
Dr Davies: I would not have a problem with that.
Q58 George Eustice: Back to Polwhele and marine mammals. You touched earlier, Ms Loveridge, on the issue of the threat to human health caused by some pathogens on cetaceans. Could you just expand on the areas that concern you most, and why you think that transferring it east to Starcross in Devon-where, I think, DEFRA is proposing to move the services-would make it so much worse?
Jan Loveridge: As I mentioned earlier, there are a number of diseases that the public and volunteers can be exposed to. One of the key ones is brucellosis, but there are also numerous other pathogens. I may have mentioned as well that we often see the public touching these animals on the beach, and they are unaware of the risks. We feel that the possible degradation in samples and negative testing that result could lead to someone becoming ill from contact with these animals.
Q59 George Eustice: Do you think that there could be a problem because fewer of these animals would be removed to go for testing if the laboratory was all the way in Devon rather than in Truro?
Jan Loveridge: We would continue to retrieve carcasses for post-mortem examination at Polwhele, because obviously that tells us a great deal, but if microbiology is transferred to Starcross, then, as I said, we personally would lose confidence in the results of those tests. It is unfortunate that the Institute of Zoology is not able to give you a more in-depth view about how it feels, because the contract is between it and the AHVLA. It is the end-user of this product.
Chair: That concludes the evidence session. Thank you very much indeed for participating and sharing your thoughts with us. It is very helpful.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Carl Padgett, President, British Veterinary Association, and Andrew Praill, President, British Cattle Veterinary Association, gave evidence
Q60 Chair: Gentlemen, good morning. Welcome, and thank you for participating in our inquiry into the rationalisation of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency. For the record can I just ask you to state your names and positions, please?
Carl Padgett: Carl Padgett, President of the British Veterinary Association.
Andrew Praill: Andrew Praill, President of the British Cattle Veterinary Association.
Q61 Chair: What do you make of these proposed changes, first of all?
Carl Padgett: Are we taking the two together, Chairman-the TB proposals and the changes to the Animal Health VLA?
Carl Padgett: In the general scheme of things, we are very worried that the speed at which these changes are being brought about may not allow some kind of adaptation within the private sector, and could actually threaten the whole infrastructure of how we undertake surveillance in this country, by damaging both relations and processes within Animal Health VLA itself, and also by stretching-if not to tearing point-the relationship between private vets and the services they can offer the state.
Andrew Praill: It is the same situation. The two considerations here are inextricably linked: one leads back round to the other. Pushing the changes that are being proposed too fast does not allow the private veterinary practice practitioners to keep up. There is progression and modernisation taking place. We are very well aware of the need that Animal Health VLA has, with regard to financial constraints, but in the first instance we must look at the service delivery and how that relates to surveillance and the effective delivery of TB disease control. In our view, these proposals risk damaging that taking place effectively.
Q62 Chair: Do you think there is a potential animal health risk from the speed and nature of the rationalisation?
Andrew Praill: Yes, potentially. If we take the two aspects again, from the TB point of view, TB is an expanding problem. There is no doubt about that. In the current year there are hopes that other aspects of disease control will be explored, but on the basis of where we are going at the moment, we would suggest that the delivery by the private veterinary practitioners-the OVs-with regard to TB testing and how it sits within disease control is a high-value, effective measure. When it comes back to surveillance generally-and we are looking at surveillance not only of the day-to-day endemic diseases, but perhaps more realistically at surveillance when it comes to exotic and notifiable disease-the position of the private veterinary practitioner on farm is an intrinsic part of surveillance on a day-to-day basis.
Carl Padgett: Chairman, I would just follow that up: we have a wonderful example of a novel disease that has just been announced in this country, which is Schmallenberg virus, after significant communication between the UK and Europe. We were aware of it coming along, but it is largely the veterinary surgeons on the ground who interact with those national surveillance systems to ensure that we are aware of what signs to pick up and how to move forward. If that is damaged, it has to be a risk to animal health in this country.
Q63 Chair: Do you feel you have been properly consulted on the proposals?
Andrew Praill: If we take both aspects, again, separately, then as far as the proposed veterinary laboratory closures are concerned, no. We feel that the proposals are being imposed, to a certain extent. The fact that at this particular moment in time there is a surveillance advisory group that is being set up-to look at long-term surveillance and how that could be delivered-is indicative of putting the cart before the horse on the basis of what is taking place, as far as the proposed closures are concerned. A reduction in scientific staff really needs to be informed by what the advisory group is trying to produce.
As far as the tendering for procurement of TB testing is concerned, again, no. We feel that, when this was first announced, it was a bit of a bombshell, to be quite honest-that was in May 2010. Up to that point, we had been consulting quite extensively with Animal Health, as it was then, and looking at the delivery of Official Veterinarian activities on farms. We thought that we were reasonably close to agreement on contractual arrangements and different aspects of delivery in relation to the structure of the jobs Official Veterinarians were performing. We thought we were pretty close to a contractual point where that would move on into a modern, everyday environment. But all of a sudden, in May 2010, there was an announcement that tendering would take place.
Q64 Chair: So, it possibly wasn’t the new Administration; it had already been in the pipeline?
Carl Padgett: If we go back to the long-standing Business Reform Programme that Animal Health has been looking at, right the way through to the current time, there have been 10 to 12 years or so of negotiations of new contractual arrangements-how the fees should be arrived at and so on. Largely, that has been a role for the British Veterinary Association to be involved with directly. To say that consultation has been difficult would be true. Open consultation has not occurred as much as we would have liked, because there have been some higher-level strategic discussions going on where, as Mr Praill has just described, one can feel one is going in the right direction. But then the communication process, almost overnight, for no apparent reason and after a period of silence, comes out with something completely different to what one expected, and which does not really fit with the consultations, or discussions-let’s put it that way-that had previously occurred.
Q65 Chair: Have you had the opportunity to feed your comments in during the interim?
Carl Padgett: Since then, yes, we have made those points. Dialogue has been ongoing, but, once we are in a position where things are starting to occur, the relationship is more strained than it was previously because trust levels become eroded when that type of communication occurs.
Q66 Chair: Who would you have been discussing this with? It is not clear from the non-consultation document who the lead authority was-whether it was the Vet Labs Agency, Animal Health or DEFRA. Who do you believe was most responsible?
Carl Padgett: If we start post-foot and mouth-effectively when DEFRA became DEFRA and Animal Health became Animal Health-without doubt it is Animal Health. We are talking about the delivery of veterinary services and the relationship with the Official Veterinarians in private practice; Animal Health has been the sponsoring body and the one we have discussed with.
Q67 Chair: If you take it from an animal health standpoint, presumably what we are trying to do is to improve animal health and prevent the outbreak of disease. Do you believe that these proposals are a step in that direction?
Carl Padgett: No, at the speed that they are happening, without fully understanding exactly what the implications are-which I do not believe we do-I do not think they are in the best interest at this moment in time.
Andrew Praill: There has not really been a true impact assessment of what is being proposed here. As I have intimated already, we are perfectly comfortable with modernising procedures to look at efficiencies and improvements. We would propose that a long-term review of these particular activities is a very good measure. But it needs to be taken not just in the light of short-term cost savings, which are an indication, but also looking long-term; you are looking 10 or 20 years on here. If you risk upsetting the stability of veterinary practices and their inclusion in the Government Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, if we do not assess that damage and how that damage might relate, then there is no way back.
Q68 Chair: What is the current status of the contractual arrangements that you felt were about to be signed?
Carl Padgett: We are going back two years or so now, before the announcement of the tendering process, as it was phrased then. Through the Business Reform Programme we had drafted some new terms and conditions and draft contracts that would be appropriate for practices. It had come down to what the appropriate remuneration was; that was ongoing. And that did not come to a natural end. Developments were still taking place, with an independently commissioned review by ADAS. We did see some draft figures from that at the end of the day, but once we had got to that stage, expecting to move forward and hopefully come to a conclusion, tendering was announced.
Q69 George Eustice: On the point of the TB test, how important is that income stream to the business model for farm and larger animal practices?
Carl Padgett: There are two pieces of work here that have only just come out recently. One was included in our evidence, the other was not, but we can forward it in due course. After Professor Lowe’s report-which may have come into your reading at some point-the BVA helped with the organisation of the Veterinary Development Council. We are currently coming to the end of the first year of that work. One of its working groups is a business models working group, to show what models exist out there. It is looking like only 14% or 15% or so-a small number of practices-are actually dedicated farm practices; by far the majority are mixed practices. It is those mixed practices that have a reliance on turnover in terms of income to the practice. One would question how one identifies the profit element from that, but there is a dependence there in those mixed practices.
Q70 George Eustice: Can you put a figure on that-a rough percentage of their turnover when it comes to farm animal work?
Carl Padgett: That varies so tremendously. Some individual practices in TB areas earn over a couple of hundred thousand pounds. For my own practice, in the North of England, it is £20,000. It varies tremendously, depending on the local disease incidence, so that is a very difficult figure to come at for an individual practice, given also the variance in size of practices.
Q71 George Eustice: I have had vets in my area raise this concern with me. Do you think that perhaps you are being overly concerned that it would be a simple tendering process? Realistically, the Department is not going to give a giant contract to some French veterinary practice. The truth is, it is going through the motions that it has to go through these days due to EU procurement laws, but certainly the evidence that we have had previously from the Chief Veterinary Officer was that the Department was very keen that practices come together in joint ventures and federations to take on this work. Are you less confident that that will happen?
Carl Padgett: I am less confident that it can be delivered. There is a competitive atmosphere out there between practices as we stand anyway, as there is with many small businesses. Also, we have a model that has occurred before in the Meat Hygiene Service, which went down a very, very similar route. They kept private practice involved with meat inspection arrangements in local abattoirs, and then, progressively, as more and more cycles have gone down, we now have the situation where those services are provided by just the model you have said is not desirable for this country-large individuals bringing in a workforce of vets, some home-bred, some from abroad.
Q72 Chair: Can I turn now to the withdrawal of lab services? Much of the evidence we have heard refers to the detrimental impact of having to post samples for analysis and the risk of loss of diagnosis through deterioration of the samples, caused by time delay. Can you give us an idea of what proportion of the samples you believe this would apply to and what risks could arise from the lack of timely diagnosis?
Andrew Praill: It is very difficult to offer information on proportion; it is very much dependent on which individual organism or aetiological agent you are searching for. This varies from organism to organism. I am not a veterinary laboratory scientist, but I understand that a lot of what you are relying on, as I would be as a clinician, is the ability to rely on those results. If you have any doubts about results on the basis that it has taken longer to get the samples to an analytical laboratory, it upsets your opinion on that result. With biochemical results there is no problem at all, but when you are looking at a culture from bacteriology, there are some organisms that, as I understand it from the information I have received, simply don’t travel.
Q73 Chair: When you say they don’t travel, does that mean that they could not be identified?
Andrew Praill: They are affected by time and temperature. What is needed-and I believe some evidence is being accrued at the moment-is a very careful review of which organisms would suffer under those circumstances, and how that may affect your ability to diagnose those particular conditions. That information is something that really needs to be looked at very, very carefully.
Q74 Chair: Do you know who is doing that work, Mr Padgett?
Carl Padgett: My understanding is that that is the VLA’s own work. From the description I have had, its researchers are effectively plating the samples up and posting them back to themselves to give that period of time, and then comparing and contrasting the results. To try to put some other figures on it, from discussions with a couple of practices of dedicated pig veterinary surgeons, who do quite a lot of physical post-mortems themselves on farm, they were looking at potentially dropping their submission rate by 50% if some of the lab work was not maintained. They are submitting a carcass for the freshness of the carcass to have the maximised potential to isolate what they needed to isolate from it. If that was no longer going to happen and it was just going to be plated up, they probably wouldn’t submit. The reason that they do that is because the organisms are highly labile; they can’t plate them up on farm themselves anyway.
Q75 Neil Parish: Just one final question on delivering the services. I know farmers very much like local vets doing TB testing in particular. Is the Government now proposing smaller areas for the competitive tendering than it was, and will that hopefully help local vets to get the contracts?
Andrew Praill: The last set of proposals we saw I believe indicated that there would be 35 areas. The general feeling is that that is too many. It does not really matter how many areas you have, because so many veterinary practices will work outwith the boundaries of those particular areas, so it complicates the issue considerably. You may well be in a practice where you are contracted to work for one delivery partner for one part of your practice, and another delivery partner for another. You may have different pricing structures, different quality assurance standards; it does not fit with the model.
Localism is extremely important in veterinary practice. There is no doubt about that at all. It is local knowledge, local delivery. Linking that in with the AHVLA is also of importance. The whole tendering issue, right down to practice level, in our view doesn’t fit. If I can expand a little further, where we can see that savings could be made-and the Animal Health VLA would stipulate that the savings could be made-is in administration. Administration, as is so often the case in a public body, seems to be an area where efficiencies can be made. Our case would be, why not just tender for the administration and not for the TB testing? That could be done on a national basis and would not need to be done on a regional basis. In our view that would seem quite a sensible way forward, rather than damaging the relationships you have at practice level.
Carl Padgett: One of the problems, when trying to base our own decision-making and policies, is getting hold of what the true costs are of that administration. We have been given a rough benchmark that, for every £1 spent testing, there is £1 for admin, but whether that is really the case, or we can come up with our own models, it is very difficult to get access to that level of information.
Q76 Chair: Interestingly, the numbers we have been given only seem to relate to those in labs. You do not have any idea, then, as to how many administrators there currently are?
Andrew Praill: A figure I recall is that something in the order of £4 million is taken up in administration. The other thing, of course, with administration-as regards the animal health section of the Animal Health VLA-is that it is not only TB testing. TB, yes, is a major constituent part of the outgoings to veterinary practices-something in the order of £20 million, whereas the total is £25 million. You are looking at other deliveries as well, which could be jeopardised if that relationship is affected by the TB tendering. You are looking at abortion inquiries due to brucellosis, anthrax inquiries, welfare visits-a whole range of different, smaller constituents, which are none the less as important in the big scheme of things.
Q77 Neil Parish: I think you have made an interesting point about taking out the administration part of the tendering process. I want to move on to laboratory testing and closing the laboratories. You say that you "recognise the financial imperative to make maximum use of expensive laboratory equipment and highly trained professional staff by increased throughput of samples through a smaller number of laboratory centres". Do you think that rationalisation of laboratory services into fewer, larger laboratories will make diagnosis more efficient?
Carl Padgett: For those tests that are safe to do that with, yes, there has to be the potential for that, but again, we would need to see the model work-ups and the impact assessments to make a better decision. We understand the desire. It is fine in principle, provided it is not a test that has to be turned around very quickly for the individual health problem being faced, or that involves an organism of any type that is going to deteriorate in the time taken to do that process. We can see that there may be the potential for efficiencies there, but we need to understand the whole of that plan.
Q78 Neil Parish: Has DEFRA presented you with any of those scenarios for how it believes it will work in practice if the laboratories close-how it is going to move that, the time scale of getting the samples to the new laboratory and so on?
Carl Padgett: Not directly, no.
Andrew Praill: There are two aspects here: the laboratory closures and the maintenance of PM facilities, which is another critical issue in our minds. Although assurances have been made that the potential numbers of PM facilities would remain as they are, one aspect of whether that would actually continue is throughput and cost. At some point or another, the decision is made on the ground as to what value a post-mortem examination of an animal might have. One of the risks here is that if you distance farms and veterinary practices from the ability for the top-class PM examinations that take place currently, you reduce the chance that those PMs are going to take place. That is a major risk to surveillance. Post-mortems constitute an important part of surveillance; hence the Schmallenberg virus, as was talked about.
Q79 Neil Parish: Can I ask you about testing lesions for TB? I take it that those lesions will be taken out at the slaughterhouse, and then sent for analysis as to whether there is TB in the lesions. Does it make a difference if they have to go a long way?
Andrew Praill: It is unlikely it would make a difference, to be quite honest. But it is a question of availability and, if you are limiting the number of laboratories, a question of whether they would have the capacity to deal with the distribution.
Carl Padgett: I go back to the example of the 50% decrease in those three pig practices. If they are getting less turnover in the labs as a result of that, that has to question the future of the PM service that is going on there, because it will not be getting the material with which to do it. There has to be a direct effect. It is the thin end of the wedge as far as I am concerned.
Q80 Chair: To return to your comments on rationalisation and closure of local postmortem centres, which you put in your written submission, what evidence do you have to reach that view, Mr Praill?
Andrew Praill: History, really. In reality, although the assurances are there, in the final analysis, if you are regressing to a position where those particular facilities are not being used as well as they should be, obviously further decisions would then be taken. There has been further discussion by Animal Health and through the veterinary representatives about the possibility of enhancing post-mortem capacity by using private veterinary practices with upgraded facilities, upskilled staff, and enhancement of other aspects of the delivery of Official Veterinarian activities as well-
Q81 Chair: Can I stop you there and ask, who would pay?
Andrew Praill: We are moving into an area of responsibility and cost sharing.
Q82 Chair: So it is going from, presumably, the state picking it up to the farmer?
Andrew Praill: The view would be that that would need to be a shared cost. There would need to be some central retention to make that happen, but when we are looking at these enhanced capacities-not only with post-mortem facilities, but also enhancement of TB disease control actions, which we have been discussing-it is totally counter-intuitive to strap those together, on the basis that we are then going to risk damaging that relationship by going through the tendering. This is why I say that the whole lot is interlinked. It is a complex subject. The whole lot is like a stack of cards, to be quite honest.
Carl Padgett: I think that there is another example in history, which may have come up in previous discussions, given we were not in for those, with Polwhele. They downgraded Polwhele to a unit, not a centre, undertook PMs there and posted off the samples, found out it wasn’t working and had to revert to a centre again. That is a good example of where this model can or cannot work on the ground. One could argue that the whole political and economic atmosphere is now different, that the livestock industry is now different, and maybe we could cope with changes. But there is a prime example there; it did not work once in one centre, so is it really going to work across the country? We have had some models put to us, although these are very anecdotal conversations. I was asked in the Welsh Affairs Committee discussing the Dutch system, where there is basically one central lab with everyone pooling their skill sets.
Q83 Chair: It is a much smaller country.
Carl Padgett: A much smaller country, without hills in the middle. You can travel three-quarters of an hour, or an hour, down tiny roads just to get to one farm in this country, which to my mind makes it difficult to see the practicality of that system if we adopt the model too strongly. Those sorts of ideas have been discussed.
Q84 Chair: What do you believe the impact of closing local post-mortem centres will be on animal disease surveillance-not just on your profession, but on farmers as well?
Andrew Praill: If you liken surveillance to a net, the bigger that net, the more fish you will catch; the bigger the mesh of that net, the fewer fish you will catch. When you are going down that particular route, reducing that capability on a drip-feed basis, then yes, there will be damage and risks to our ability to pick up diseases, as we should be picking them up-as they appear. Those risks are becoming ever greater, as you are well aware, with climate change. Again, the Schmallenberg virus is a case in point here. We need to maintain that surveillance.
Carl Padgett: I think it is important to draw a distinction here between diagnostics and surveillance. On the whole, the main desire of individual farmers is to have a diagnosis for what is going on at that particular moment in time. They currently pay for that service, be it through the VI centre, the VLA or private laboratories. For those high-volume diagnostic-type tests that are available, I am sure the private world would step in. But that leaves us in a completely different situation with regard to surveillance, whereby we could have undermined the capability of those centres to be able to do the surveillance properly, be that scanning or targeted surveillance. One could argue-particularly with targeted surveillance for eradication schemes, for example-that there may be some responsibility and cost sharing discussions for the industry to have there in the future. But if we separate completely and expect the private world just to move in, I simply cannot see how the current structure can maintain the level of scanning surveillance that we really need. We cannot separate the diagnostics from the surveillance to have a skilled service available to us.
Q85 George Eustice: To go back to the point of DEFRA having claimed that, over six years, demand for testing has gone down by 75%, I wondered, on a specific point, is it still routine to test roadkill badgers for TB? I heard anecdotally from one farmer the other day that they do not do that any more; he phoned the vet, who said, "No, it’s no longer done."
Carl Padgett: No, roadkill badgers have not been tested as routine for some considerable period, partly due to some of the health and safety requirements of testing those badgers, for example, in case they were infected with TB. Where they are tested more routinely is, if one gets a hotspot in a new area, to look at what is going on in those areas. Also, for example, Wales did a specific study as well. There is no routine examination of roadkill badgers currently.
Q86 George Eustice: When you say this has not been done for some time, is that within the last six years?
Carl Padgett: Longer than that.
Q87 George Eustice: Longer than that. So that would not account for it?
Carl Padgett: In fairness, I would question the value of doing that nationwide. It would be resource intensive, and one is not actually getting a denominator of the population to base the statistics upon, even when one gets the results from the population. One has to wonder about the pros and cons of doing it. I see every sense in doing it in specific areas for a specific reason at a certain time.
Q88 Amber Rudd: Mr Praill referred earlier to the absence of an impact assessment. One of the reasons DEFRA uses for not having done an impact assessment is that there will be no additional costs to the end user from this rationalisation. Do you agree with that?
Carl Padgett: I cannot agree or disagree without help from other figures.
Q89 Amber Rudd: Is that the impact assessment?
Carl Padgett: Yes. My suspicion is that the cost will rise.
Q90 Amber Rudd: Were you consulted at all on the rationalisation plan?
Carl Padgett: Not directly, no. If we are talking about the rationalisation plan as such, and whether I saw a consultation paper in front of me, no, I did not.
Q91 Neil Parish: We have been talking quite a lot about the relationship between farmers and vets, and delivering the service. Do you want to add anything on that? Will the rationalisation weaken the relationship between AHVLA, the veterinary profession and other farmers and stakeholders?
Carl Padgett: I think we developed that. Without the access to the individuals with the skills in AHVLA, and without the more regular contact, it is bound to weaken the relationship they have. Mr Praill has described already that, to a degree. If we add the TB element into that, and the cart before the horse element, are we actually going to create damage here by moving what is effectively an animal health measure-we are trying to control the disease here-and making it an almost purely technical issue, which has such a massive effect on the infrastructure out there, and then trying to sort out what is left? It does not seem the right way round to me: we should have infrastructure sorted out and then see how we can work with TB within that. The damage will be significant.
Q92 Neil Parish: So you are saying that we are putting the cart before the horse, basically. So, to add to my question, what is DEFRA doing to mitigate the risk of a weaker relationship between AHVLA and the veterinary profession and farmers, and what would you like to see DEFRA do? DEFRA is going to have to cut money one way or the other. That is the reality of life. How is that best approached?
Carl Padgett: We had already started having some of these discussions. This is what we talked about with regard to the communication process earlier on. "Intramural" is the wrong word, but certainly some greater vision in how the relationship could develop was starting to come through. Then, all of a sudden, to be hit with the labs closures, and, prior to that, tendering as well, made us think, "Well, hang on, what’s happening to those models?", and the trust eroded somewhat as to how those models could be developed. I think there are models out there that could be used to great advantage both for the profession, within the state and outside it, and also for the farming industry.
Q93 Neil Parish: We also talked about identifying the cost of administration, which I think you probably feel is not identified enough, and how we deal with that. Is that right?
Carl Padgett: Absolutely. By understanding that administration across the board, maybe we could put together different models for how things could be handled in the future.
Q94 George Eustice: Are you concerned that the rationalisation of the AHVLA’s laboratory services will actually reduce our ability to detect and respond to new threats?
Carl Padgett: Yes, that is exactly the reason we are so concerned about it. The new threats, like Schmallenberg, which I mentioned earlier-this new viral infection we are facing-demand a high level of co-operation not only within this country, but also internationally. One has to have the structures, and also the reputation and skills of the individuals, in order to be able to do that well, and so we understand it in this country. I think that some of that will be lost.
Q95 George Eustice: Are there going to be new threats as a result of global warming and increased cattle movement?
Andrew Praill: Without a doubt. We have seen bluetongue over the last few years, and Schmallenberg. We have other diseases knocking on our door. It is not just cattle and farm animals; you are looking at West Nile fever with horses. It is an ever-present and developing threat with climate change. There is no doubt about that.
Carl Padgett: If we take West Nile virus as the example, there are human implications for that. The One Health concept is a buzzword at the moment throughout the world, let alone in this country, in terms of public health and animal health. Will we actually have the strength in our animal health and surveillance unit to complement the public health sector if we come into the sort of situation where a serious threat to human health is appearing in the animals in this country?
Q96 Chair: On the animal health aspects, and the implications for the labs, do you believe that there is a threat to maintaining the specialist expertise that we currently have in diagnosis? I am particularly looking at the situation in Truro for marine mammals, and at pigs in Thirsk. Do you believe there is a threat to retaining the expertise?
Carl Padgett: I believe there is. They are centres of excellence in their own right at what they do. I would have to see how the plans of how those centres of excellence are going to be maintained in different locations. They appear to be located in sensible positions at the moment.
Andrew Praill: In any situation, once you start losing expertise, it is extremely difficult to replace and work that back up. We made a note, in our submission, that we are looking at a veterinary officer in a VLA facility taking at least three years to get up to the acceptable level of capability. Once you start losing strategic numbers of specialist staff, it is a long way to come back to where you should be.
Q97 Chair: Mr Padgett, you practise in the North of England.
Carl Padgett: Yes. I am currently out of practice doing the BVA job, to be absolutely accurate.
Q98 Chair: We heard evidence in the previous session about the concentration of the pig population in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Would you be concerned if the service currently offered in Thirsk was moved? We understand that there are no places to offer these people in Newcastle.
Carl Padgett: My history is actually on the west coast in Lancashire, so I am not directly involved with the pig industry on the east coast. Practitioner friends I have in those areas are very worried about that loss of resource.
Q99 Neil Parish: We have received evidence suggesting that post-mortem room attendants will perform post-mortem side tests, such as examination of blood or body fluid smears. Is that your understanding, and will those attendants have the same expertise as the Laboratory Service staff they are replacing?
Carl Padgett: I would question where the savings are going to come from if they have the same levels of expertise, if that is exactly what is going to happen. Fine, there would be some savings in other hard resources-incubators or what have you-that are being moved away, but I struggle to see how the savings will come if they don’t have lower expertise.
Q100 Neil Parish: Do you have evidence that the post-mortem room attendants will be doing these tests or not?
Carl Padgett: I would like to see first of all exactly what tests are being truly proposed, to know if those are the important tests we really need to keep, carcass-side.
Neil Parish: So, again, it is better consultation as to what is happening.
Q101 Amber Rudd: Coming back to competitive tendering, as you know, it is common throughout the public service. Why do you think that it is so unsuitable in the case of vets?
Andrew Praill: I would like to say we are a peculiar breed-well, we are a peculiar breed.
Neil Parish: Like farmers.
Andrew Praill: TB testing itself is not just a technical activity, but a much wider activity than that on a local farm level. TB fits into the general advisory structure that a veterinary surgeon has with his farming client when it comes to other diseases as well. So you are looking at an holistic approach to health at farm level. Some of the discussions we have had with the Animal Health VLA, as I pointed out, looked at enhancing that delivery by the veterinary surgeons on farm even further-for instance, looking at more epidemiological work, looking at instructing and advising on what is known as a disease report form. That, currently, does not take place; it takes place through veterinary officers coming out of Animal Health itself, but is a role that the private veterinary practitioner could just as easily perform. They could probably perform it more efficiently, in our view, because it sits very closely inside the entire health package of that particular farm: biosecurity advice, mitigating risk and mitigating the effect of TB. The moment you start looking at TB testing per se as just a technical service that is put out to tender, you draw away from where we would see the better role-the more expansive role-for the veterinary practitioner and the Official Veterinarian, working on farm in a total health package.
Q102 Amber Rudd: Is there also a disadvantage for rural vets in this potential route?
Andrew Praill: Potentially, yes. Again, it is very complex. We are aware of various discussions and consortia that are indicating they could get together, with a number of veterinary practices linked up underneath the same delivery partner. But practices are extremely variable, as we have indicated. The vast number of practices that are involved with food production animals are mixed practices; they have other aspects to their practice. At some point or other, each and every one of those practices has to make the commercial decision as to whether the continuation of TB testing, and probably even farm animal services, is realistically an option for that particular practice. That will vary a lot from region to region, and also depend on levels of TB, so it is a very complex range of different practice types and structures, and decisions, that are going to have to be taken. There is a risk that you could end up with fewer vets working in farm animal veterinary work, and, again, once you start going down that route, it is one-way-you cannot get back.
Carl Padgett: On the face of it, it is a technical service that, looking from the outside, one would say could be delivered very easily by a competitive tender. I can see what the simple attraction of that is. It would fit consistently with other processes, as you mentioned. It is the background effect on the practices that worries me. I am less worried about some of the larger practices that provide some of the services Mr Praill has been talking about. I am much more worried about other parts of the country. Many of the large practices are in rural areas as well-it is not just a rural problem-but there are many areas where there are small practices and less livestock density. We are talking about less accessible areas, and even about peri-urban areas, where there is less livestock. If the relationship with the state in these terms enters into a purely competitive nature, the loss of this work might actually be the thing that makes that practice give up. That is the tale we are getting back. If they give up, that is a loss of access to veterinary services for all the farm animals in that area. Then, to my mind, we have a welfare issue that society also needs to address: these animals cannot get private access to veterinary surgeons because they are a long way away. We have been left with only the bigger practices, 40 or 50 miles away, which, as economics would dictate, are happy to deal with the large clients, or have put in place pricing policies that would be viewed as too high for the individual animal 50 miles away. That is the danger. I have just described the worst case scenario, but that is the danger we are scared of, because of the business structures out there.
Q103 Amber Rudd: You also referred in your submission to challenges with EU procurement rules. Do you have any suggestions to implement strategies to mitigate against those difficulties?
Carl Padgett: Those rules came down to a selection: whether this was a full tendering exercise required at an economic level as well as at service level, or whether veterinary services come under the panel B of those rules. I believe we have moved on somewhere now, from part of their advice, so are now sitting in panel B, which had been our argument all along. We are now into the wider discussion of how far the procurement exercise needs to go-whether it is truly a competitive tender, with pounds, shillings and pence included in that, or whether we are starting to ensure certain levels of service delivery, that the administration is sorted out in a different way and so on, with the remuneration coming from some other method that keeps it a level playing field for all.
Q104 Dan Rogerson: Just very briefly, for the record, can you say why you think the practices currently carrying out the testing would not win the competitive tender?
Carl Padgett: The reality is that a four-man mixed veterinary practice in Cornwall does not have the experience to put in the competitive tender for one thirty-fifth of this country.
Q105 George Eustice: It is interesting what you say about EU procurement rules. It does not surprise me that the Government is trying to simplify the process, but the main thrust of your concern is, in effect, the way tenders are assessed. If you could get DEFRA to accept that a qualitative role in TB testing and assessment of risks on farms and so on was a fundamental part, and that it was not just about doing a test for a set fee, would that reassure you?
Carl Padgett: A greater involvement with the whole communication process, from disclosure of TB on a farm all the way through case management, with both state and private practice integrated within that to deliver the best advice and way forward for the farmer, would seem to me to be sensible.
Q106 George Eustice: What reaction have you had from the Department when you have made that suggestion?
Carl Padgett: There is interest in doing that. It does make sense. That is from the Department. There are discussions, at policy level at the moment, as to how that can be delivered, with Animal Health feeding in to see where it fits in that model. The discussions are taking place currently. I am relatively encouraged that there is interest in trying that.
Q107 George Eustice: You mentioned a small practice in Cornwall. How difficult would it be for consortia to come together with, say, a dozen other veterinary practices to cover a geographical area as part of a joint venture? Is there a precedent for that?
Carl Padgett: There are precedents all over the country with various practices getting together as buying groups and things like that, but not usually for the way in which they are going to provide services-it is often one practice going ahead. There is an example of a group that works together nationally at the moment, but its members are so widely spread it would be difficult to see how they would get total penetration of all the farms in the country to deliver these services. It is not something that the profession has faced before. I would not put it past 10 or 12 practices to be able to get together to do so, but that increases their admin load. We always have the competition element that is happening on the ground currently, anyway, between those practices.
The thing that is starting to really strike me, more than I have seen in 22 or 23 years of being a cattle vet and mixing with cattle practitioners, is that this process, and people trying to plan for the unknowns of this process, is really pitting people against people, and practices against practices, in a very damaging way. We are already seeing damage that has now occurred-and it will be difficult to recover from-to the delivery of animal health in other areas, because people are starting to position themselves. One might say that that is the marketplace, but the unfortunate downside to that is it has to affect the long-term provision of services, particularly with regard to the protection of animal welfare and access to those services in the longer term. It is happening too fast. A lot of what needs to happen with some of this I can see happening over the next 10 to 12 years as practices adapt anyway. Practices are having to move into a more modern economic world, with different business structures, and that is why we are seeing more and more progressive amalgamations and so on. To force practices and the profession to adapt will cause losses and significant damage, because it is happening too quickly.
Q108 Chair: Can I just ask, on the question of drugs, what are the current arrangements about pricing of drugs available through veterinary practices?
Andrew Praill: You are probably aware that in 2001 the Competition Commission investigated the situation. Its main finding was that the cross-subsidisation of fees from the sale of medicines was not necessarily a good thing. There has been quite a bit of progression since then in veterinary practices as to the proportion of the turnover, and hence profitability, that has been accrued from the sale of medicines. That is reality. The vast majority of practices understand that: professional veterinary services are their core product. As to the provision of veterinary medicines to their clients, their clients for the most part would see that as an added benefit, again, because of ease of supply, access, and onsite support and advice as to the use of those particular medicines. Medicines for the most part have to be prescribed by a veterinary surgeon anyway, if not dispensed. By keeping that in-house, as it were, for the most part, it provides a joined-up approach to the use of those medicines on farm.
Carl Padgett: As a result of those processes, as well, the actual margin of mark-up put on to the drugs has decreased dramatically, with the competition element that is there. That has had its knock-on effect within general practice. That is why these changes, I would suggest, are already happening; practices are much more competitive than they ever were at a service level. Our issue is just the speed at which, in future, they are going to occur. If you are going to have service provision, it is no good having practices just going out of business overnight because they cannot survive. It needs to be structured in some way.
Q109 Neil Parish: Can I just very quickly play devil’s advocate? Perhaps it is not only Government and DEFRA that are making the practices bigger; you are inclined to eat each other anyway in veterinary practice. I have seen it in my own area, where the veterinary practices have grown bigger and bigger. The point I want to make is, when it comes to competitive tendering, we have to make sure not only that we deliver a good service, but that we deliver value for money for taxpayers. In some way, what I am saying to you is, how can we argue that rest of the world is having competitive tendering and you are not, when you are naturally getting bigger anyway? I do not think that you can blame the Government entirely for the fact that practices are bigger than they used to be.
Carl Padgett: I think that is a statement rather than a question.
Chair: You may want to drop us a line.
Andrew Praill: It is a question of how long you have got, really. There are so many reasons why this is happening. It happened to Mr Padgett’s practice. It happened to my practice as well. It relates to financial aspects, work practices, working time directives, out-of-hours cover-
Q110 Chair: Feel free to drop us a lengthy note about it. One last question: you mentioned shared costs. Do you have any concerns at all that this will have negative implications for animal health going forward?
Andrew Praill: It depends how it is communicated. It all comes down to communication and value. This is a communication issue between the farming industry and the veterinary practices, and with Animal Health. If you are providing an efficient, costeffective, high-value delivery that reflects down to farmer level, then, as far as shared costs are concerned, some of that would obviously be taking place already with private arrangements between the veterinary practitioner and his farming clients. But at some point or other, in reality there has to be a sharing of those particular costs.
Chair: Thank you very much. You have been incredibly generous with your contributions. Thank you for participating in our inquiry: we are very grateful.