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Agriculture: Bluetongue

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether it is their policy that all susceptible domestic ruminant animals in the United Kingdom should be vaccinated against bluetongue.

My Lords, Defra has placed an order with Intervet to supply 22.5 million doses of bluetongue vaccine for a vaccine bank. Those will be used in England and, potentially, in Wales. Keepers of susceptible animals in the protection zone will be able to protect their animals from bluetongue by purchasing vaccine doses from the bank.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. Does he agree that this is a very serious disease and that it is much more aggressive in its second year than it appeared to be in its first? For example, in Belgium, what seemed to be a mild outbreak in 2006 ended up with 40.9 per cent of Belgian sheep having to be killed because of bluetongue.

What funding will there be for vaccine? I understand that in Holland, for example, the cost of the vaccine is being fully reimbursed by the EU, which is also paying 50 per cent of the administration costs. What degree of importance is the Minister placing on publicity to farmers and other animal keepers to ensure that a high level of vaccination is achieved in order to eradicate the disease?

My Lords, the noble Countess is right about what happened in northern Europe last year. We are in a fairly unique position in this country; from the latest figure, we have had 66 outbreaks. There have been more than 19,000 in Germany. It is rampant in parts of Europe and was in fact rampant before it was discovered. The incidence was low at the end of last year and when it comes back—there is no question about that—we will potentially have enough vaccine for animal keepers in the protection zone. I emphasise that, under EU rules, only animals in the protection zone can be vaccinated, but we can change the shape of the zone to include more keepers than before.

Discussions are due to take place in Brussels on the Commission’s announcement regarding funds being available to reimburse certain costs. Our vaccine supply will cost Defra around £11 million, but it may be that farmers themselves will be able to vaccinate their animals if the vets think that they are competent to do it. That would reduce costs. Regarding reimbursement, that is of course affected by the United Kingdom’s rebate from EU funding, which sometimes stands in the way of our getting benefit from particular schemes.

My Lords, will livestock owners be doing this on a voluntary basis under direction from Defra? Will the virus that is used for this be the same virus that has been rampant in the European Union? Will vaccination be co-ordinated with what is happening on the Continent?

My Lords, it will be voluntary. All these issues are actively being discussed, and have been for several months, with scientists, vets and representative members of the industry. We are not doing anything as if it is coming down from Defra; we want to take the industry along with us, in partnership, so it will be voluntary. The vaccine is to deal with serotype 8 of bluetongue. There are 23 other serotypes, and we almost have to hope that the one which comes back will be number 8, as that is our vaccine. I think that Spain and Portugal deal with three different versions of bluetongue, and other countries deal with different numbers. There is an issue there, but we need to deal with it by good partnership.

There is lots of publicity for farmers and animal keepers, so they know exactly what they need to do. Once we have the vaccine available and have completed the discussions in Brussels, there will be full announcements, consultation and all relevant publicity.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that British livestock farmers now face their biggest challenge ever, practically speaking, and especially in 2008? We must prevent any further spread in the UK, as the alternative is the decimation of our cattle herds and sheep flocks. Will Defra scour the world to obtain more than those 22 million vaccine doses? That was well done; it was an achievement to do it. Yet the fact of the matter is that unless all cattle and sheep in the UK are vaccinated, many farmers will be on the road to ruin.

My Lords, the 22.5 million vaccine doses comprise 20 million doses for England and potentially 2.5 million for Wales, as requested by the Welsh Assembly Government. However, under EU rules, one can vaccinate only in the protection zone. If the disease comes back on a different scale, it may be possible to make the whole country a protection zone, because that would be good for internal trade. We fixed the figure for doses on the basis of it being a voluntary vaccination in the protection zone. I do not think that there will be a shortage. It is a new vaccine, which is certified only for sheep and cattle at present. It can be used on other susceptible animals, but that would have to be on the advice of a private vet.

My Lords, in a previous remark, the Minister explained to the House that the rebate got in the way of the European Union paying for the vaccine. That is not strictly accurate. It is not the rebate, but the UK Treasury.

No, my Lords. If the rebate did not exist, we would be paying more into the EU net, I understand, than France and Germany. I shall not argue about the rebate. The mechanism by which the Commission will want to help member states with vaccinations has not been agreed. The vaccination is new. A vaccine was not available for Belgium, Holland and Germany. I understand that the Netherlands ordered vaccines last week. Until then, the United Kingdom was the only country in the EU which had ordered any vaccines for serotype 8, which we did some weeks ago. If the EU offers help, it may make loads of rules. It may demand compulsory vaccination. It may demand vaccination only by vets, which would vastly increase the cost. We want to be flexible and avoid unnecessary costs. To that extent, we will not want a lot of EU rules attached to EU money.

My Lords, susceptible animals are all ruminants, including sheep, cattle, deer, goats; and camelids, including llamas, alpacas and a couple of others that I cannot pronounce. They are susceptible, but whether they will catch it as easily, I do not know.