Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (J7)

  Thank you for your letter of 2 August inviting the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to submit further evidence on this subject. There have been significant developments since the memorandum which RCVS put forward on 14 January 1999 and the oral evidence offered to the Committee on 10 March 1999.


  RCVS is glad to note the major expansion in relevant research funded by MAFF, covering the genetics and immunology of the disease, vaccine development, transmission and badger population studies.


  The Ministry has put in place effective mechanisms to communicate with veterinary surgeons, farmers, animal welfare groups and the public at large, by setting up the TB Forum and making up-to-date information available on its website and through the press. Local Veterinary Inspectors have also reported better liaison between them and MAFF's Divisional Veterinary Managers. Good communications are vital on an issue such as bovine TB where there are no simple certainties or easy options and feelings run high. There is still no sign of consensus emerging, but at least the debate is now better informed. The report of the Independent Husbandry Panel was particularly welcome, in that it offered sensible advice on practical steps to minimise infection while candidly recognising that the processes of transmission are still poorly understood.


  The slow progress of the trial remains a cause of serious concern. It is meant to cover 10 triplets. As yet only eight have been established, and culling has only taken place in three. It is likely to be some years before robust conclusions can be drawn.


  It would perhaps be unfair to say that there is a policy vacuum while the results of the culling trial and the various research projects are awaited. The control of the disease rests, as in the past, on the identification of reactors to the tuberculin test, slaughter of infected animals and movement restrictions. These established measures are not, however, keeping the disease in check. There were 345 confirmed incidents in Great Britain in the first quarter of this year as compared with 289 in the same period last year, an increase of nearly a fifth. The disease is no longer largely confined to the West Country, having emerged in Dyfed, Derbyshire and Staffordshire as well. It hardly needs to be said that the impact on farmers is devastating, but it may be less obvious that outbreaks of bovine TB also put veterinary surgeons under stress.

  The Government's wish to base policy on good science—as emphasised recently by Baroness Hayman—can only be applauded. It does not follow, however, that decisions should be deferred until there is solid evidence to guide them. There can be no guarantee that the current research on bovine tuberculosis will produce clear results, and the outcome of the culling trial could be inconclusive. Veterinary surgeons, like doctors, are regularly obliged to treat patients whose conditions are not fully understood. Similarly, in the face of a rapid growth in the incidence of an economically important disease of farm animals which is also harming a protected wildlife species, Ministers must surely take steps to control it on the basis of current knowledge, imperfect though that is. Possible alternative strategies have been under discussion within the TB Forum. It is important when attempting to control an infectious disease that all necessary steps are taken. This not only involves diagnosis and slaughter of infected animals and introduction of strict biosecurity measures to prevent reinfection and cross-infection but also action to eliminate the source of the infection. With bovine TB, the source has frequently been identified to be infected badgers. Where this is the case, action to eliminate the risk imposed should be allowed. In short, there is a need for a Plan B in case the results of the current trials are inconclusive. There is an opportunity to develop and test such a plan in areas not affected by the culling trial.

  In the meanwhile the existing controls need to be applied as effectively as possible. From this point of view the timing of the Ministry's proposed pilot scheme for tendering for Local Veterinary Inspector services was not ideal. It is also unfortunate that, in reviewing the arrangements for veterinary surveillance, MAFF should have revived the suggestion of lay involvement in tuberculin testing without addressing the considerations which led to a similar proposal being rejected in 1996. The current regime for detecting bovine tuberculosis rests on the tuberculin test administered by the LVI, so any changes in the arrangements for carrying out the test should be considered very carefully with disease control as the overriding objective.

18 September 2000

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