Lab axe threatens fight against animal disease

Lab axe threatens fight against animal disease

Farmers and farm animals will be the losers if the Government strips more than half of the UK’s regional veterinary centres of their laboratory facilities, scientific staff warned.

Laboratory services at eight of the 14 regional centres run by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency will close over the next two years if Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman gives the go-ahead to plans put to her today by AHVLA.

The labs affected are at Langford (Bristol), Thirsk (North Yorkshire) and Truro (Cornwall) all by April 2012; and at Aberystwyth (Dyfed), Carmarthen, Luddington (Warwickshire), Preston (Lancashire) and Winchester (Hampshire), by April 2013. Veterinary surveillance staff at the centres would in future have to send samples for testing to one of the remaining regional or central AHVLA laboratories.

Veterinary science laboratories are responsible for ‘animal specific’ health testing, which includes the early diagnosis of diseases such as foot and mouth, bovine TB and swine fever, as well as a range of other laboratory services including haematology, microbiology and biochemistry.

Defra claims the closures would save £2.4m a year. But Prospect, the union for scientists and specialists in the agency, says that figure is dwarfed by the potential costs of failing to detect promptly a disease like foot and mouth, which cost the UK £8bn in 2001.

Ninety scientists and laboratory staff would lose their jobs under the proposals, said Geraldine O’Connell, Prospect National Secretary. “That’s one in three of all laboratory staff employed in AHVLA’s regional network. These are the wrong proposals, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons,” she said.

“The review accepts that the demand for laboratory services will not change and that these cuts rely wholly on the remaining laboratories taking on their work. But AHVLA acknowledges that there may not be the capacity for those labs to absorb the extra workload, and that outsourcing some functions is inevitable.

“The country cannot afford the loss of so many skilled laboratory staff or the reduction in testing facilities. Worst of all, the closures will result in a poorer service to vets and the livestock industry, who will have to wait for diagnoses while samples are despatched around the country to the few remaining labs.”

AHVLA says it recognises the need to maintain specialist skills and hopes to encourage some staff to transfer by offering financial incentives to relocate. Prospect fears the ban on recruitment in the public sector means that AHVLA will be forced to buy in services from private sector companies.

It is not clear whether the planned savings include the additional costs of re-locating staff and buying in additional services. However, it is likely that the true savings from the rationalisation will be far less than projected, says Prospect.

If the plans are approved, laboratory services will remain at just six regional centres at Penrith (Cumbria), Shrewsbury (Shropshire), Starcross (Devon), Bury St Edmonds (Suffolk), Sutton Bonington (Leicestershire) and Newcastle upon Tyne. They will continue to be supported by the central work groups at Weybridge (Surrey) and Lasswade (Midlothian).