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Will the profession embrace government plans to control future disease threats?

Delegates at the Official Vet Conference 2018 had the opportunity to question the APHA’s proposals for adapting the workforce post-Brexit

15 November 2018, at 1:48pm

Delegates of the 2018 Official Vet Conference attended to consider the theme of “Controlling disease threats at home and abroad”, but it was threats to future ways of working that generated the greatest interest. Animal health and welfare is a major aspect of UK food production, and potential and existing purchasers need assurances that standards will be maintained and improved.

Andrew Soldan, Veterinary Director at APHA, gave a short address to open the conference. Although Andrew has only been in the role for three months, his experience with laboratory testing and international trade may well prove valuable in the coming months. He attended many of the sessions and gave support to the speakers.

John Bourne said that he is confident that in the event of a no-deal Brexit in six months’ time, the UK veterinary workforce would be able to meet the demands
John Bourne said that he is confident that in the event of a no-deal Brexit in six months’ time, the UK veterinary workforce would be able to meet the demands

John Bourne, Director of Biosecurity and Food Projects, Defra, has responsibility for the UK’s exit from the EU as one of 14 projects currently ongoing. He discussed some aspects of Brexit at the conference. “For OVs, there will be uncertainty until the outcome of the negotiations has been agreed. The most difficult outcome will be no deal with the EU.” For countries outside the EU, there will be little change in the requirements for the movement of goods to and from the UK, he clarified, noting that a series of technical notices are being written to help OVs prepare for the possible outcomes.

John used the example of the lead time needed for tests to take animals to the EU. If these change and the details are not known until the end of March next year, there may not be time for the tests to be completed before animal movement is sought. The intention is to have a risk-based regime that is suitable for the UK, and OVs are encouraged to talk to Defra and highlight any issues that are of concern, he said.

When asked whether he was confident that the veterinary profession would be able to meet the demands of a no-deal Brexit in six months’ time, John answered: “Yeah, I think I am. There are a huge number of moving pieces in this and it’s quite a complicated picture, but we’re working very hard with the vet profession and with businesses around awareness, making sure there are good communications, so that should be manageable.”

Simon Hall, Director for EU Exit and Trade at APHA, introduced the topic of paraprofessionals working in the veterinary team. Training packages are being developed by Improve International for certifying officers and tuberculin testers, to work under the control of an OV. Simon related his experience with lay TB testers employed directly by APHA, where the testing team is considered to be competent and effective.

Sue Quinney answered questions from OV Conference delegates on the wider integration of non-veterinary Approved Tuberculin Testers
Sue Quinney answered questions from OV Conference delegates on the wider integration of non-veterinary Approved Tuberculin Testers

The scene was set for Sue Quinney, Veterinary Advisor for TB Delivery, APHA, to discuss the use of non-veterinarian Approved Tuberculin Testers (ATTs). If agreed, the earliest date for roll-out would likely be 2020. This may coincide with the tendering process for the next raft of TB testing, which will give project managers another consideration for costings, training and responsibilities. The use of lay testers would apply to England only.

The consultation closed a few days before the OV Conference and the responses had not been collated, but the results are due to be published by the year end. The factors that have led to the need for a consultation include an increase in disease surveillance, six-monthly testing within the TB High Risk Area and a shortage of cattle vets. The speaker highlighted that the involvement of lay TB testers is intended to provide an additional role for paraprofessionals, allow vets to focus on more specific tasks requiring veterinary judgement and improve cost effectiveness, while maintaining high quality standards. Whether testing practices choose to engage ATTs would be considered a business decision.

A training module is available now, and a pilot project is planned to start immediately. The pilot project is designed to ascertain whether the developed module is fit for purpose, to provide a platform for farmer feedback about lay testers on their farm and to monitor results and outcomes. It was not indicated where the pilot project would take place, but any practices that wish to have hands-on experience of trained lay testers may wish to contact APHA.

The APHA does recognise some concerns about ATT introduction. The speaker emphasised that the quality of the testing must be maintained and the tester seen to be competent. There will be an online course, theory and practical training with an examination and ongoing performance audits. During training, an ATT will be under direct and constant supervision with assessment of cattle injections and readings. It is expected that there will be six-monthly checks, with revalidation every two years.

It was emphasised that the introduction of lay testers is not to replace veterinary surgeons and the use of ATTs will not be compulsory. An ATT will work as part of a veterinary surgeon-led team. It is considered that a combination of the two would build strong relationships with farmers and that 60-day repeat testing may be carried out by vets in some circumstances and an ATT in others, according to the specific situation. There were many questions from delegates, the answers to which provided some clarifications:

  • An ATT cannot confirm a reactor without veterinary involvement
  • An ATT cannot perform testing for exports
  • An ATT can clear a herd from restrictions (eg second 60-day test) as there will be confidence in their ability
  • No decision has yet been taken on whether an ATT should be involved in pre- and post-movement testing
  • An ATT will be involved in skin testing, not blood tests for gamma interferon
  • The intention is not to have large testing organisations with many ATTs; the ATTs will be linked to and led by a veterinary practice
  • There might be a limit on the number of ATTs at a practice; this is one of the outcomes sought from the consultation

It was mentioned that the baseline qualifications for an ATT to enter the training programme would be three GCSEs and six months of on-farm experience. This is the same baseline for an animal health officer, but it was pointed out that many of the current officers carrying out TB testing for APHA considerably exceed those qualifications. It is anticipated that veterinary practices will offer candidates for training.

It was also not difficult to hear views from members of veterinary practices at the South West Dairy Show with regards to these proposals. There are many aspects to consider and the results of the consultation will no doubt highlight the benefits and concerns. It is a challenging time for large animal practices; the introduction of six-monthly testing within the High Risk Area is seen as a real problem in terms of testing days and personnel. However, there is a view that the introduction of ATTs is being rushed because of Brexit and that “the profession” needs time to consider how best to adapt to the changes.

Following a 16-year apprenticeship with Beecham, Richard established a project management and development consultancy and writes regular contributions for the veterinary press.

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