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Defra: Disease Outbreaks

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 27 January 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what contingency funding the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has for disease outbreaks.

My Lords, no specific funding is set aside for disease outbreaks. However, we do a great deal of work preparing for disease outbreaks to prevent incursions and to minimise impact in the event of an outbreak.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he appreciate that this is the 10th year since the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001 and that Exercise Silver Birch seemed to demonstrate that we have not progressed much further with, for example, the validation of field gate tests and the acceptance of vaccination by abattoirs? The excuse given by the trade is, apparently, that the public do not like vaccination, but the public eat vaccinated meat all the time. What is being done to improve the validation of field-side tests, blood tests that distinguish between vaccinated and non-vaccinated animals and farm gate tests?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Countess for reminding us that it is only 10 years since the last major outbreak of foot and mouth, which she, I and many others remember well. I am also grateful to her for mentioning Exercise Silver Birch, which has recently concluded. It was a fairly major exercise organised by Defra, the devolved Administrations and many others, in which more than 600 people took part to look at how a foot and mouth outbreak might affect England, Scotland and Wales. The important thing to remember about it is that it will report in due course. I hope that lessons can be learnt from the report when it is published in, we hope, March of this year. That will probably be when I can comment in more detail on the further points that the noble Countess made, which are very valid at this stage.

Does the Minister agree that contingency planning and funding are becoming more important, as exotic diseases will probably come into this country through greater globalisation and climate change? Does he accept that, in the ongoing situation, there should be more contingency planning to deal with outbreaks of TB? We are still losing something like 100 cattle a day through tuberculosis. I accept that much is being done, but is Defra satisfied with the efficacy of the vaccine for badgers?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to point to the importance of contingency planning, rather than contingency funding. The important thing is that we plan for these situations. I can give an assurance that Defra has planned and will continue to plan and test for all diseases. I also underline his point about the increasing risk of exotic diseases, which is one possible consequence of climate change. As regards his specific question about the efficacy of the badger vaccine, I can give an assurance that laboratory studies have demonstrated that the vaccination of badgers by injection with BCG significantly reduces the progression, severity and excretion of TB infection after experimental challenge. However, we still have a little way to go on these matters before we can make such vaccines more widely available.

My Lords, is it not true that our reaction to the last foot and mouth outbreak was almost entirely dictated by Brussels? If the common agricultural policy still controls such matters, how can we make independent plans for any contingency funding?

My Lords, I am talking about contingency planning, rather than contingency funding. However, I give an assurance that Defra will continue to make the appropriate plans in these matters, on which we are not totally dictated to by the European Union, despite what the noble Lord says.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear the Minister speak about contingency planning, but clearly different diseases need different kinds of plans. I would like some assurance that the different plans for the different diseases will be sufficiently straightforward and easily implemented if they should be needed. Secondly, will there be sufficient funding to maintain UK-based food production, which is so vital, should there unfortunately be a disease outbreak disaster again in the future?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. I remind him that planning is the most important thing, rather than funding. If funding is a problem, that would be an occasion, as I think all noble Lords know, when it might be appropriate to go to the Treasury to ask for more funds. I will not comment on that in advance. As regards his question about the possibility of food shortages, I do not think that that is a problem at this stage but, again, it is something that Defra will take into account.

My Lords, what arrangements have the Government made to recruit veterinary surgeons from private veterinary practice to undertake inspection and control work in the event of a major disease outbreak in this country? Would the Government offer contracts to those people who are willing to undertake such work?

My Lords, I cannot give a specific answer on the last point made by my noble friend, but I can assure him that we will use private vets where necessary in the event of a major outbreak.

To build on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, I should like to continue with the issue of the everyday challenge of TB in cattle. I declare my interest, having sold my dairy herd last year. From the recent business review within the noble Lord’s department, the decision was taken to bring veterinary services back in house, rather than contract out to local vets. The lack of commercial flexibility in these new arrangements and a lack of local knowledge of farming clients have disrupted the concerted and co-ordinated efforts to minimise disease risk and to avoid disruption to trade from pre-movement testing and the six-day rule, to say nothing of the everyday challenges and redundancies brought to independent veterinary practices. Will the Minister ask his department to assess whether this policy is working effectively for disease control and livelihoods in the countryside?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that our consultation on bovine TB concluded recently. We will make an announcement shortly.