I am updating the House on publication of a consultation on delivery of the next phase of our 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB (bTB) in England by 2038.
BTB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that England faces today. In the last year, we compulsorily slaughtered over 27,000 cattle in England to tackle the disease. This causes devastation and distress for hard-working farmers and rural communities and is damaging our reputation as world leaders in high standards of animal health and welfare.
The bTB eradication strategy we published in 2014 is making progress. We are now seeing sustained improvements in the high-risk area. We need to build on this momentum to achieve bTB free status for England by 2038.
In 2018, my predecessor commissioned Professor Sir Charles Godfray to conduct an independent review of our strategy (“the Godfray review”). In March 2020, we published a response setting out key priorities for the next phase. Today, I am launching a public consultation and a call for views on a range of proposals and longer-term options in keeping with that response, to take us into this next phase.
I am also pleased to report that work on developing a deployable cattle bTB vaccine continues and is on track to be completed within the next five years. Our goal is to deliver on the significant investment we have made to date in developing a candidate diagnostic test to detect infected animals among vaccinated animals to enable use of the vaccine. Although a cattle bTB vaccine will not be the single solution to the problem of bTB, it will be a strong additional tool at our disposal. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has awarded a contract to Eville & Jones to run veterinary field trials aimed at generating the necessary evidence to enable UK marketing authorisations. The trials are scheduled to get under way in the coming months.
Badger culling is one of the most contentious and divisive policies within our bTB eradication strategy. Our current policy enables four-year intensive cull licences in defined areas with scope for a further five years of supplementary culling. The consultation sets out proposals for Natural England (NE) to stop issuing the current intensive cull licences for new areas post 2022 and enable new licences issued to be cut short if the chief veterinary officer considers this acceptable. Furthermore, I am proposing to restrict any new supplementary cull licences to two years and cease re-issuing such licences in any areas in which supplementary culling has previously been licensed.
As proposed in the Government’s response to the Godfray review, APHA recently released a new analysis showing the estimated distribution of TB infection in badgers in England’s bTB edge area. This will be of assistance to NE in assessing applications for badger culling and vaccination licences in the future.
The farming community has invested heavily in badger culling, which the evidence shows has played a critical role in helping to start to turn the tide on this terrible disease. But we were clear that culling badgers indefinitely is not acceptable. My proposed approach will enable us to complete the objective we set out to achieve when we started the culls. It will also support our stated intention of phasing out culling over the next few years. I envisage that in future some form of culling would be an option in exceptional circumstances to address any local disease flare-ups. This transitional period will also give us time to undertake badger vaccination pilots and develop our future badger vaccination policy. The end of widespread culling is also anticipated to coincide with changes in cattle measures, including our timeline for a deployable cattle bTB vaccine. Taken together, it is anticipated that these cattle and badger measures should preserve the benefits from intensive culling.
I am also proposing some targeted changes to our cattle bTB testing policy, to ensure we root out the disease more effectively in herds with recurring problems, and further help protect lower bTB risk areas.
In parallel to the consultation, I am also seeking views to explore other options for further accelerating eradication of disease. These include possible further changes and improvements to bTB testing, supporting responsible cattle movements and rewarding low-risk cattle purchasing behaviour. Our call for views also discusses ways we can continue to adapt how we reward farmers for “best practice”, in line with our wider agricultural transition plan.
There is no single solution to the scourge of bTB, but by deploying a range of policy interventions we can continue to turn the tide on this terrible disease and achieve our long-term objective of eradicating it in England by 2038.