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Badgers and cattle TB: Government Response to the Committee's Tenth Report of Session 2007-08 Wednesday 5 November 2008


Q99 Mr Drew: In terms of the field trial, which you know I know something about because it is in my area, when we went to see the laboratory work at Weybridge, I suppose the question that really came up was: why can we not be looking to do more field trials? In a sense, I pose the question no more scientifically than to say it is a ruse at the moment. Given that it is all heat rather than light that seems to emanate around the issue of culling, why could we not actually replicate the vaccination trials in the terms of trying to see if an area could be used to dampen down the rate of increase of bovine TB? All I am saying is, to some extent, let us go with the hunch rather than a pure scientific proven outcome to see if we can dampen down an area by using the vaccination initially, injecting the badgers, because that is all we have got at the moment, we have not got the oral vaccine, we have not got the cattle vaccine, but we know, we have got some evidence, not yet proven, of whether you can dampen down TB in that area by using an injectable vaccine.

Hilary Benn: I would certainly be keen, it is obviously subject to advice that I receive, to try this out in hotspot areas. That would seem to be a really sensible and logical place to have a go. Now, you need the support and involvement of those who are terribly affected by the disease because this has to be done together. I do not know whether Gabrielle wants to add something on this.

Ms Edwards: It is probably just worth differentiating between the trials that are being done at the moment, which are scientific trials to get the safety data for the licensing of the injectable vaccine, and then what we are looking at in terms of the injectable deployment project, which, I would hope, would do the sort of thing that you are talking about because, as we do not see that as a rigorous scientific trial, we would be using it and we would be trying to see if there were some sort of impact on the disease in cattle as a result of using it. You will not be able to do something against controls in the same way as you do with the RBCT, but you may be able to see something in trends, and we also hope that you will learn more in terms of how you could actually go about getting groups of farmers together to actually deliver a vaccine. Whilst there would be one thing which would be around the injectable vaccine, some of the problems you would have in delivering that would be very similar to those you would have with an oral vaccine, so there is quite a lot of learning you can do with an injectable vaccine. I think the other point that is worth making is that the analysis we have done so far suggests that the cost:benefit of using an injectable vaccine on a large scale would suggest that you are not going to be able to do it, it is just not economic, but we do not actually know until we go out there and try it. It may well be that, by doing that work, particularly if there is some sort of delay in the oral vaccine, it might look more attractive than it does at the moment.

Q100 Mr Drew: Well, the parallel is what we have just done with bluetongue, that none of us quite knows what the implications are going to be of the vaccine trial because it is still a trial and we have got different strains of bluetongue. Now, I know we have got experience from what is happening in other countries, but, in a sense, what we have here is a lot in common. We suspect that it will be a lot better to trial, and I know there are issues about take-up which is an issue to do with it being voluntary versus making it compulsory, but, in a sense, if you compare that to foot-and-mouth where we had the arguments about whether we could vaccinate to get ahead of the disease, we chose not to do that and we chose a culling policy and at that time, personally, I felt it was right. I think that, if we were to run it now, we would have a hell of a lot of argument about whether we could cull to try and eradicate the disease.

Hilary Benn: I agree with that. In relation to foot-and-mouth, and we put, as you will know, the vaccination teams on standby when there was the outbreak last year, I think attitudes have shifted compared to where they were in 2001. I think the crucial point about the bluetongue example, okay, we developed a vaccine, we were the first northern European country to place the order, but the reason why the rollout of the vaccination programme has been a success is because the industry was absolutely committed to this and we did it together. The industry came and said, "Look, would you put the money upfront to order the vaccine?" I said, "Fine, I'll do that, but the deal is that farmers have to pay for the vaccine when it's used, sharing the cost", and that is exactly what has happened. They came and said, "We don't want a compulsory programme. We've thought about it and we want a voluntary programme, but we will give it all the support that we can. Don't hesitate, vaccinate". The take-up, okay, it has diminished a bit, but it has gone further north because actually we have just had a summer in which we have had no new cases, apart from those arising from the imports, and you could see, the further north it got, that farmers may have thought, "Well, there haven't been any further cases, so perhaps I'll wait and see", but the industry continues to be very strong in saying, "Why wouldn't you want to vaccinate your animals?" That is why you need the support of the areas in which we are going to have the injectable vaccine deployment because you build confidence, people need to participate, you are going to have to train people to actually do the trapping and the injecting, and then you see what the results are, but it is a shared endeavour and it is a much, much better way of doing it. I think we have got an opportunity here myself and, in the process, the aim is not scientific, as Gabrielle says, but it is a way of trying to build confidence and seeing will it hope to have an effect, as you described it very well, in damping down and then people will say, "Well, maybe vaccines have got something to offer".

Q101 David Taylor: You will have noticed that your July statement seems to have polarised the Committee more into jabbers and cullers, and I am a fully paid-up member of the jabbing tendency! I want to look at some of the practical difficulties that are associated with your vaccine time-line. As an accountant, I fell on this beautiful project plan with some relish and I was disappointed at some of the detail that I found. It is page 24 of your response to our tenth Report. You mention in the narrative of that response that European countries which are TB-free would be reluctant to see changes in the present control system, and I think that is undeniable, and, therefore, you said a moment or two ago that you wanted to have, in a sense, all of the ducks lined up before you took the plan to them and got the appropriate licensing endorsed. Do you not think that where you have placed the serious discussion with the European Commission, which is in 2013/14, that it seems sort of an unduly leisurely approach from where we sit here in 2008, even one demonstrating some sort of insouciance as well? Surely, (a) that should be earlier and (b) you will need more time anyway, will you not, from the serious discussion with the European Commission to the availability of a vaccine that is ready to use by 2015?

Hilary Benn: Well, I can assure you, Mr Taylor, being leisurely is absolutely not what we are about. In the end, you have to make a judgment of how long you think it might take, given that Europe's policy currently is that you cannot vaccinate and given that the Commission is likely to say, "Well, when you've got all of your bits ready" so that we can begin to have a conversation with them about their being sufficiently confident that all of these things are going to work to change the policy, "because, after all, there will be other Member States where it is not so big a problem and we will want to be absolutely convinced that you've got this right, otherwise why would we want to agree to a change in the arrangements". I am keen that we get on with this as quickly as possible. If that time-line can be shortened, then great, but ----

Q102 David Taylor: But is it not too close, Secretary of State?

Hilary Benn: Too?

Q103 David Taylor: Too close. Are you even allowing enough time from the serious discussion, so-called, until the licensing of the vaccine and its availability for use because it is beyond the critical path without a doubt and any delays at that point will push back the availability of the vaccine? What we have seen in some of the early statistics, and my colleague Mr Gray pulled it out very well indeed, is a doubling of the infection over a four-and-a-half-year period, that is the trend, I think that has been established, and it takes just simple arithmetic, two four-and-a-half-year periods, nine years from 2007, the last date that is available when you are into the first year when the vaccine is theoretically going to be available and you are going to have a quadrupling of herd breakdowns to, on that trend, 16,000 herd breakdowns a year. How many herds are there, by the way, in the UK?

Mr Simmons: In GB about 85,000.

Q104 David Taylor: So another seven years really beyond that and every damned herd is broken down. In terms of animals slaughtered quadrupling, it would produce a figure of 100,000 animals slaughtered. Do you think that the British public, farmers and others could sustain that sort of level of loss, 300 cattle a day being slaughtered because of TB, which is a herd a day or whatever it might be? That is an astonishingly high figure which should really provoke, and stimulate, a perhaps rather more rapid reaction.

Hilary Benn: Well, I am listening very carefully to what you have got to say, Mr Taylor. If anyone can say, looking at this time-line, "We think you can speed it up", and I have asked the question in relation to the development of the vaccine, "If I put yet more money in, will it speed it up?", I asked that very specifically when we met and the answer was, "No, it won't, but, if you put more money in, you increase the likelihood that you'll produce something that is going to work". If there is any way in which, because there are certain processes you have to go through, and Gabrielle may no doubt wish to comment, and you cannot hurry up in terms of licensing and accreditation and so on and so forth, but, if we can squeeze a bit of the time, and in the end that is a judgment as to how long we think any incorporation into a legal framework any EU negotiations are going to take, if we can squeeze that, great.

Q106 David Taylor: It is five and a half years away, those serious discussions starting.

Hilary Benn: Well, it is the first time I had had a discussion with her and one of the things that I did raise was indeed this point. I said, "Look, we are investing more money in vaccination and, if and when we get to the point where we've got something, I hope very much that the European Union will say, 'Right, we can change the rules so that we can use it in order to deal with the disease'".

Ms Edwards: I think there is a difference between serious discussions and formal negotiations because we are actually starting the process of discussing with the European Commission now and we will try to share the information with them, but there are some things and, I would absolutely agree, there is not much room for slippage in that timetable, it is very tight, and it is our most optimistic timescale.

Q107 Chairman: But the European Union are giving you a hard time as it is now. They have suddenly got themselves involved in this whole business of the work of the Eradication Group, they do not seem to be wildly happy with the strategy you are currently following and there are all kinds of rumblings and noises off as to whether there might be trade measures because of the high incidence in certain areas of bovine TB. You are not getting on terribly well with the European Union on this at the moment, are you?

Hilary Benn: On the trade measures, SCoFCA, as you know, has been looking in particular at the case of the calves which are exported and there is the informal trade ban that Belgium and the Netherlands have put in place. In that case, the system worked in that, as soon as we discovered that the calves had come from a farm that subsequently turned out to have a case, we let them know, and the Commission is in the process of deciding what it is going to do about this and it has been having kind of a number of goes during the course of the autumn. The EU Task Force, they will come and they will give some advice to support the work of the Eradication Group, but, as Gabrielle was just saying, it is not as if we are saying that we are going to go away and do all this work on vaccines and then suddenly we will turn up to the Commission and say, "Hey, we've done all this". Clearly, the sensible thing to do is to keep them informed about the process as we go through the stages because it is about building confidence in what we hope in the end to produce, which is a usable vaccine alongside a DIVA test that can give the confidence that you can distinguish, and then to try and get the process of changing the current laws to permit vaccination, because it is a better way of dealing with it, as soon as possible.

Q108 David Taylor: Well, my final question relates to the discussion we have been having which has been, in essence, about a cattle vaccine. Now, during your rapprochement with the European Commission people that you have been talking to, do you get the similar feeling, that there will be difficulties in winning their acceptance of a badger vaccine when that might appear?

Hilary Benn: We do not need to get their approval because the cattle vaccine is for trade measures and we are not exporting badgers.

Ms Edwards: We have actually got to clarify that.

Q109 David Taylor: The badger vaccine would need to be licensed, would it not?

Hilary Benn: Yes, under the normal process, but we would do that.

Q110 David Taylor: But there is no further approval needed?

Hilary Benn: No, it does not require their approval, but the cattle vaccine would.

Q111 Mr Drew: Really, the crux of this is that it is a bit of madness, is it not, because we have got here a situation whereby the two countries that have got a real problem with bovine TB are ourselves and the Irish Republic, yet the rest of the EU are pontificating on this. They are not pontificating on whether it is good science or bad science, what we are doing, but they are looking at it in terms of the pure economics, as a trade measure. At a whim, they could take away our TB-free status. I have never understood how ----

Ms Edwards: We do not have TB-free status.

Q112 Mr Drew: Well, exactly, so it is all a wonderful ruse. What we really want is the EU to be helpful to us, to recognise that we are at the front end of trying with other countries in the world who happen to be outside of the EU, like New Zealand and, the classic case, Australia. Is this not rather limiting? What we want is just their help, as we have had in other areas, to go back to our earlier discussion of foot-and-mouth and bluetongue, where they have been helpful in the type of things we have tried to do. Surely they should be more helpful in this and say, "Look, if you can find a way forward, we're not going to use economic measures" because they are merely, let us say, trade-related to try and block what will be a perfectly sensible way if we can find a cattle vaccine. If we can prove that it is safe to eat, and to draw from, the cattle, why would they still not want to take our animals?

Ms Edwards: It is about trade in live cattle, the issue. The relevant European legislation is a trade directive, and their concern is that they would not be able to identify which cattle were infected with TB and which were vaccinated, so it is just inconsistent with the trade measures.

Q113 Mr Drew: But that is true of other species at the moment. We still have pigs, for example, and the Dutch presumably would be paranoid if we were to take the sort of measures, which we could have taken against us in terms of bovine TB, against swine vesicular disease because of the difficulty with that disease growing around Europe at the moment.

Hilary Benn: Of course we need all the assistance that we can get and the reason why I have raised it with the Commissioner, why the discussions that Gabrielle has just described have begun and why we will keep them closely in touch with progress is that we want to be in the best position when we get to the formal stage of saying, "Now, will you change the rules because we've got", fingers crossed, "a vaccine that works and we've got a DIVA test?" to try to minimise the time, but in the end you have to make a judgment because you have got to be straight with people. It is not a question of the Commission saying, "That's fine. Right, you can start next Tuesday", which is why in the time-line, which is where the question began, we built a period into the time-line for making that happen, recognising that it may not be easy to get the support of other Member States, but the more we can build confidence, the better chance, I hope, we will have.