With avian influenza threats now back to near-normal levels across the UK, it's a good time to reflect on how we in the Animal & Plant Heath Agency (APHA) handled last winter's cases. Not just the documented lessons we've identified, but also our personal experiences too.
Most of my attention focused on operational policy, both as Veterinary Director for APHA and in my role as Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer for the UK. APHA’s new outbreak model, put into action at the very start of the outbreak, proved very effective at delivering work on the ground. But we had not spotted the potential for better veterinary decision making. And there was some intensive work to be done as we went along, to help realise more operational benefits.
Throughout the outbreak, I had a steady flow of feedback from APHA’s Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and Customer Service Centres (CSCs) on what could be improved. Some things, such as the waiting period between visits to poultry premises, could be fixed by return of email. Other issues, such as the need for risk-based surveillance visits, were much more complex, taking into account veterinary risk assessment, EU and UK law, operational efficiency and understandable differences in policy between the different UK governments.
These complex decisions benefited from the range of expertise which APHA brought to the table. We also made progress showing our collective expertise can design ways of controlling disease efficiently and effectively.
A key consideration is creating the right roles in an outbreak which can then be reflected in business-as-usual. I saw people making good decisions on the front line which would previously have been made at the National Disease Control Centre (NDCC). It helped having the decision makers much closer to the information they needed, either in the FOB or in a CSC, where the staff were able to respond more quickly to customers.
Cleansing and disinfection – assessing options to allow exports
Cleansing and disinfection was another example of something heavily influenced by APHA experts, delivering benefits well beyond the individual premises.
We can't declare freedom from avian influenza to the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) until three months after the last premises has been disinfected. Many importing countries will not accept our poultry exports before then. These exports include everything from high value, globally significant breeding stock through to cuts of poultry meat which have a high value abroad. These all add to the total value of our meat production.
UK interpretation of OIE rules for disinfection had been very rigid, creating long delays in restarting exports. We worked with Defra to understand how other countries approach these standards and how the OIE code interacts with EU Directives.
This was a challenging process as each case is different and each raised questions unforeseen when the policy was written.
Case vets and Animal Health Officers needed to understand the underlying intent to what they were doing. They also needed to understand the rules and science behind them.
We have deployed a new solution to this problem. A lot of this was achieved by getting front line staff deeply into supporting policy development, which I hope was a rewarding experience and something we can learn from in the future.