A proposal by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) to close the veterinary disease surveillance centre (DSC) at Inverness shows that ‘lessons have clearly not been learned from previous outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease’, according to the trade union Prospect.
The potential closure of the Inverness DSC was identified as an option by SRUC in June, when it invited views on proposals to make changes to the network of veterinary DSCs in Scotland (VR, June 6, 2015, vol 176, p 583). SRUC said that, if the Inverness DSC was closed, the region would be served by the DSCs at Thurso, Aberdeen and Perth.
In a press release on June 19, Prospect claimed that SRUC had made no provision for relocating the Inverness DSC ‘which means that farmers in the Highlands will have to transport carcases hundreds of miles to the next nearest labs in Perth, Thurso or Aberdeen’. Alan Denney, the union’s national secretary, commented: ‘The reason for examining these animals is to establish the cause of death – specifically whether it is the result of a contagious disease. If dead animals have to be transported over much greater distances this will increase the chances of spreading infection. Because of the extra time and effort involved, it may also mean that some animals will not get tested and we potentially miss an important early warning sign of an outbreak.
‘This has implications for both animal and human health. If we get another major outbreak of foot-and-mouth the livelihoods of countless farmers could be threatened and the costs could amount to hundreds of millions of pounds. Unfortunately these closure plans suggest that past lessons have not been learned.’
Mr Denney added that, potentially, other infections, such as avian influenza and Escherichia coli, could also be spread, with ‘grave implications’ for human health. ‘Set against these threats a projected saving of £150,000 a year from closing Inverness seems meagre at best,’ he said.
Prospect says that some 30 jobs in total are under threat at Inverness and the DSC at Ayr, which, under SRUC’s plans, would also see changes to service delivery.
On June 29, the union reported that it had held talks with David Stewart, the Scottish Labour member of the Scottish Parliament representing the Highlands and Islands. It also said that it was talking to John Finnie, an independent MSP representing the Highlands and Islands, and was seeking a meeting with Fergus Ewing, a business minister in the Scottish Government and the SNP MSP for Inverness.
In a press release on his website on June 29, Mr Stewart said that he had discussed with Prospect the ‘very serious implications’ if the Inverness DSC were to close. ‘This is the only facility of its kind in the Highlands and Islands that can carry out postmortems on large animal carcases,’ he said. ‘The centre’s reputation is second to none in its field. These are the people that are monitoring disease in the animal world to react to any emerging crisis.
‘What we have at the Inverness facility are 15 highly motivated and committed staff most of whom would be made redundant if this issue is left unchallenged.
‘What it appears SRUC are suggesting is that a crofter from Skye should transport a dead cow carcase to Aberdeenshire or Perth for a postmortem. How likely is that to happen? What is likely to happen is that the crofter will bury the carcase on their land and leave it at that.
‘The outcome thereafter is that we lose the first-class disease surveillance work carried out at Inverness and disease surveillance takes a backward step.’
Prospect called for all opponents of the plans to close the Inverness DSC to work together. Speaking on June 29, Mr Denney said: ‘There is a growing outcry at these plans from both farmers – whose livelihoods depend on effective disease surveillance – and the wider public. The work of this lab is unique in the Highlands and Islands and as such it is irreplaceable. ‘But if we are going to stop these plans opponents must set aside any political differences and speak with one voice. The consequences of failure could have grave consequences for farmers, human health and the Scottish economy.’
The union also encouraged opponents to sign a petition, established by Mr Stewart, which can be found at www.ipetitions.com/petition/do-not-close-the-veterinary-services-disease