Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons


  1.  The Select Committee is well-informed about the problem of bovine tuberculosis as a result of its past inquiries, and it is aware of the concerns of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. This brief note therefore confines itself to commenting on the issues in the light of the Government's consultation paper, "Preparing for a GB strategy on bovine tuberculosis", and the report of the Independent Scientific Review chaired by Professor Charles Godfray.

  2.  RCVS found the consultation document disquieting. The proposed short-term measures to reduce transmission between cattle are reasonable but will do nothing to control transmission between cattle and wildlife. The maps and chart in paragraph 3.3.8 present an unmistakeable picture of a disease which is out of hand, but the document offers no convincing strategy for getting it back under control. Indeed, the first question posed suggests that the target for the next 10 years should be only "to contain and progressively reduce spread, incidence and economic costs of the disease and to continue to develop the science base to inform future strategy". When a building is on fire, the aim of the fire brigade is to put the fire out, not just to slow down the rate at which it spreads. The Government's aim should be to return to the position where most of the country is free from bovine TB, with only sporadic outbreaks which can be contained by movement restrictions and slaughter.

  3.  The consultation document addresses the question of transmission between cattle and wildlife, but in terms which seem to revert to an earlier stage in the debate. Seven years ago, as the Select Committee knows, the Krebs report advised that the evidence strongly supported the view that in Britain badgers were a significant source of infection in cattle. The report acknowledged that the evidence was indirect but said that "in total the available evidence, including the effects of completely removing badgers from certain areas, is compelling". In August 1998 Ministers announced the decision to launch the Randomised Badger Culling Trial "in order to find out when culling is an effective approach and when it is not". Yet now the consultation document asks whether "in the light of current evidence, policies should be developed (including badger culling) that seek to control transmission of bovine TB between badgers and cattle". It also asks under what circumstances a badger culling or management policy would be acceptable. It makes no obvious sense to raise these questions when the culling trial is at an advanced stage. The decision to mount the trial implied that transmission between badgers and cattle had to be dealt with, and that culling, if it worked, would be an acceptable control measure. Professor Godfray's report has now confirmed, if confirmation were necessary, that policy should be "based on the assumption that badgers are involved in disease transmission as a wildlife reservoir".

  4.  It is also a matter of concern that the consultation document betrays a wish to distance Ministers from responsibility for the strategy. Question 4 asks "Does Government need to intervene in the control of bovine TB?". At some point it may be worth considering this question, but it seems strange to raise it at a time when a zoonotic disease is spreading rapidly in livestock, farmers have no power to deal with the wildlife vector except through husbandry measures, and the established control system rests on the exercise of statutory powers. To return to the earlier analogy, it is a bit like discussing the pros and cons of privatising the fire brigade when there is a fire to be put out. Similarly, the document asks questions about "effective partnership" and "governance arrangements" for a new strategy. Consultation and involvement of stakeholders in the formulation and implementation of policy are of course desirable, but the real need is for Ministers to make decisions and take firm action.

  5.  Admittedly this is easier said than done. Whatever Ministers do (or fail to do) is liable to be condemned, and those who criticise ought to offer positive advice. The advice which RCVS would offer is that the Government should reconsider its strategy now on the assumption that the culling trial will prove inconclusive. Reactive culling as carried out in the trial has been abandoned, and it will not be surprising if proactive culling turns out to be ineffectual. This is because it is not thought to remove more than 80% of the badgers from the area. Indeed, a Written Answer to Mr Owen Paterson MP on 29 April, col 1189, said that the efficiency of trapping might vary between 30% and 80%. Section 5.6 of the Krebs report made it clear that, in both the reactive and proactive culling areas, the aim should be to remove all badgers. If the object is to control a disease by slaughtering potentially infected animals in a defined area, it is optimistic to expect this to work when a substantial proportion of them survive to spread the disease. It would therefore be rational to work on the basis that proactive culling as practised in the trial will not be effective. If it does work it will offer Ministers a relatively comfortable policy option, but they would be ill-advised to pin their hopes on this.

  6.  In setting up the culling trial Ministers hoped to be able to make and defend policy decisions on the basis of good science. If it becomes clear that the trial is not going to prove anything there may be a temptation to call for further evidence. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to act on the basis of imperfect information. The advice already available to the Government, most recently from Professor Godfray's report, is that the transmission of bovine TB from the wildlife reservoir must be dealt with. It would be good if transmission could be controlled through husbandry measures, and Professor Godfray has suggested a publicly-funded experiment in badger-proof farming. A good idea, but such an experiment will inevitably take time and husbandry may prove not to be an answer. The same comments apply to vaccination to control the disease in badgers. In the meanwhile there is clear historical evidence that the systematic removal of all badgers in an area around an outbreak can work. The evidence may not come up to the best scientific standards, but as the epidemic continues to accelerate Ministers may not be able to afford the luxury of further research before taking action. The publication of the results of the Irish experiments should in any case cast fresh light on the effectiveness of culling which is designed to remove all badgers from an area.

  7.  RCVS hopes that the Select Committee will encourage the Government to recognise that its present policy of waiting for the outcome of the culling trial is not sustainable.

Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

May 2004

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