A Farmers Weekly investigation has uncovered serious concerns about the future of farm animal health disease detection in this country.

In December, the Animal Health and Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) announced it was downsizing its network of 14 animal disease surveillance centres to seven.

The move will also see cuts in the number of vets employed by the government for disease surveillance from 44 to 35 and support staff will be reduced from 45 to 30.

The AHVLA, the government agency that manages animal disease surveillance, insisted the changes would strengthen the ability to detect disease by placing “greater emphasis” on surveillance intelligence from private vets, universities and the livestock industry and less emphasis on government post-mortem examinations.

However, industry leaders say the changes are effectively government cuts that could risk new diseases, such as the Schmallenberg virus, going undetected and jeopardise public health.

One AHVLA employee, who did not want to be named, said the plans would result in job cuts and the loss of valuable expertise in this area that will not be replaced.

“A lot of centres are closing, some jobs will be lost and never be used again for veterinary expertise to help the UK in its next disease outbreak/prevention,” warned the worker.

“The government wants fallen stock yards, abattoirs and some universities to do the work at cut price. Not many are actually interested at the moment either.

“Give it five to 10 years and it is thought that only the AHVLA in Weybridge, Surrey, will be running.”
AVHLA employee

“This is not going to work as the experts are already doing the work. Private vets who carry out post-mortems out in the field actually ring the AHVLA centres now for advice.

“What will they do when they go? Give it five to 10 years and it is thought that only the AHVLA in Weybridge, Surrey, will be running.”

Leaked internal documents seen by Farmers Weekly suggest further budget cuts may be necessary in future.

AHVLA counts the cost

  • Nine veterinary jobs and 15 administrative and support posts at the AHVLA will be lost
  • AHVLA budget for scanning surveillance in England and Wales fell from £10.2m in 2010-11 to £8.4m in 2013-14. A drop of £7.2m is forecast for 2014-15

In an internal memo circulated to staff in December, AHVLA chief executive Chris Hadkiss insisted the new surveillance model was the correct proposition for now.

“However, as we become clearer on budgets that look likely to continue to decrease further in years, I would ask staff to note that we will need to continually review the overarching AHVLA estates strategy in order to best deploy our resources to achieve the best possible value.”

An AHVLA spokesman said: “The current system under-represents some geographical areas and species, does not make best use of resources or alternative sources of surveillance data and is becoming unaffordable.

“The new model retains a network of AHVLA vets working across England and Wales, but enhances the current system by improving the way these vets work and by putting in place the mechanisms through which government can work better with others – such as private vets, universities and the livestock industry.”

Reaction to the new system 

Independent veterinary consultant Dr Fiona Lovatt, director of Flock Health and Sheep Veterinary Society president, said: “We are concerned that expertise will be lost and we don’t yet know whether the alternative will be an adequate replacement.

“There are no guarantees that disease surveillance will improve or even that we will continue to meet statutory requirements.” 

Dr Archie Prentice, Royal College of Pathologists’ president, said: “We don’t understand DEFRA’s argument that running down the AHVLA and then putting out the service to tender to anyone who wants to bid for it is a more effective way of doing the surveillance.”

Robin Hargreaves, British Veterinary Association (BVA) president, said: “The plans will require private vets to increase their skills and provide an opportunity for practices to invest in training and facilities. But can we ensure an ongoing national ability to detect and respond to new and emerging disease threats? At the moment it is simply an act of faith and our members remain concerned about the potential effect.”

See also: DEFRA admits bovine TB statistics blunder