Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs
When I relaunched the TB Eradication Programme in 2017, I committed to updating Members of the Senedd annually. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, this Statement has been delayed from April 2020 until now.
Our response to COVID-19 has had an impact on the delivery of the TB Eradication Programme, however, I believe there are important lessons to be learned from how we have responded to this crisis. Testing for bovine TB has remained the cornerstone of the Eradication Programme and has continued to be implemented, with certain easements. Other aspects of the programme have been paused and the introduction of some new policies delayed as a consequence of the Welsh Government focusing on carrying on testing and ensuring animal health and welfare, as well as public health, are appropriately safeguarded. There have been examples of good partnership working, for example, in defining practical TB testing easements to meet COVID-19 guidelines where decisions were backed up by evidence.
The focus has been, and remains, on building trust-based relationships with stakeholders and keeping communication lines open, addressing issues as they arise, developing solutions in a dynamic manner and working together.
During this period we have continued to focus on each of the four key principals of infectious disease control: Keep it out; Find it fast; Stop it spreading; Stamp it out. This has included maintaining a regime of proactive surveillance, continuing to test, within safe social distancing guidelines, imposing movement restrictions on infected premises where necessary and working with herd keepers to implement biosecurity and purchasing best practice.
Through our collective efforts and ongoing co-operation with industry and vets, we continue to be encouraged by the latest TB statistics. In the 12 months to August 2020, we saw a 10% decrease in new TB incidents compared with the previous 12 months, the 26th consecutive month there has been a decrease in this disease parameter. During 2019, there were 5.8 new herd incidents per 100 Officially TB Free herd tests, which is the lowest annual level of herd incidence for 15 years. I am pleased to report we have seen this trend continue into 2020 with the lowest quarterly level of herd incidence reported in Quarter 1 of this year.
At the end of August 2020, 95.0% of herds in Wales were free of TB, which is higher than August 2019 and has been on the upward trend since January 2019.
There were 10,462 cattle slaughtered as a result of TB in the latest 12 months to August 2020 representing an 18% decrease compared to the previous 12 months. This decrease is partly due to the revised inconclusive reactor (IR) policy which has led to fewer IRs being removed prior to additional testing. However, it is important not to focus on one measure for what is a complex disease situation. Measures of incidence and prevalence at herd level are more significant indicators of disease progression than number of animals slaughtered.
I have set TB eradication targets for Wales to become officially TB free between 2036 and 2041. Interim targets, covering 6-year periods have been set for each of the TB Areas. These targets specify overall reductions in herd incidence, as well as the transfer of spatial units from higher incidence areas to lower incidence areas. At the end of each 6-year period, progress will be assessed and milestones set for the following period. Work continues to identify spatial units which might be eligible to make a positive change in their status going forward.
The High East TB Area and the High West TB area have made good progress over the last 12 months, with herd incidence on the decline. At the end of 2020 Quarter 2, herd incidence was at its lowest for any second annual quarter for both TB Areas since the introduction of the TB Eradication Programme in 2010. We are also beginning to see some progress in terms of herd prevalence in the High West TB Area with 19% fewer herds under TB restriction at the end of 2020 Quarter 2 compared to 2019 Quarter 2.
Following the introduction of a range of additional disease control measures in 2018, it has been agreed to implement three new Intermediate TB Area North (ITBAN) phase 2 measures from 1st February 2021. These include expanding provision of Individual Herd Action Plans to TB breakdowns recurrent up to and including the 6 monthly test for all herds in the ITBAN. Measure 2 introduces Interferon-gamma (the “gamma test”) as a Post Movement Test in two spatial units of the ITBAN (CL7 and CL8). The third measure will apply severe interpretation to testing in herd breakdowns in the same spatial units (CL7 and CL8) throughout the duration of a breakdown. As part of a communications plan ahead of introduction TB team officials are arranging an online open meeting for the ITBAN area to discuss the introduction of these new measures as well as to consider and discuss the ongoing disease situation within the ITBAN.
A growing concern over recent months has been an increase in cases within the Low TB Area (LTBA) of North Wales. There were 27 open incidents at the end of March 2020, which is the highest number of open incidents since Quarter 2 2011. However, this only accounts for 1% of herds in the Low TB Area, with the remaining 99% free of TB at the end of March 2020.
Preliminary assessment of disease report forms to identify the source of infection has demonstrated at least 70% of the open breakdowns in the LTBA at the end of March 2020 are directly attributable to cattle movements. This does not mean the remaining 30% of breakdowns were not from purchased cattle but these breakdowns may have had more than one likely risk pathway. It is concerning despite the control measures we have in place this epidemiological evidence indicates bought-in cattle being the primary source of new infection in the LTBA. I urge anyone bringing cattle into the LTBA to carefully assess the risk presented by those animals through informed purchasing and to utilise tools such as the ibTB website. If we are to roll back disease and achieve our eradication targets we need to protect the LTBA as a priority.
My TB team has continued to work with industry representatives, other Administrations and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to develop an improved Welsh version of the TB Hub webpages. Online workshops have been held and officials are currently working closely with Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) to develop relevant future proofed content. The TB Hub is proving useful during COVID-19 as a means of disseminating the latest information effectively. We understand from stakeholders the TB Hub is a trusted tool through which farmers and others can keep up to date with regards the latest science, epidemiology and any rule changes.
In normal times, all cattle 42 days of age and older must be included in herd skin tests carried out to maintain or restore the herd’s TB free status. This has still been taking place so long as it is safe to do so within COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. However, the Welsh Government received representations from vets and farmers raising concerns about their ability to maintain the 2 metre rule whilst TB testing calves, which require handling in a different way to adult cattle. In order for herds to still be tested a temporary amendment of exempting calves under 180 days from testing has been in place since March. Furthermore where farmers are shielding, vets are advised not to test until it is safe to do so and farms where their test goes overdue for COVID-19 related reasons are not being referred to payment agencies. These easements are being kept under regular review while social distancing measures related to the COVID-19 epidemic are in force. I have asked the Chief Veterinary Officer to analyse the data available since the beginning of lockdown. Although the number of tests completed between April and August, when compared to last year is down by 6%, the evidence suggests the likelihood of a significant impact on the national TB eradication efforts being caused by delays in testing over the short to medium term, is considered likely to be very low.
From 1st January 2021, a number of dairy co-operatives have stated no healthy calf from their suppliers is to be slaughtered within the first eight weeks of life. We understand this will be put in place by all dairy co-operatives by 2023. The Welsh Government is working closely with the industry aiming to ensure every calf is guaranteed a home and has the best possible start in life.
To assist the farming industry, and especially farmers affected by bovine TB, we will encourage the use of rearing type Approved Finishing Units and are working with livestock auctioneers to run a limited number of TB Dedicated Sales (“orange markets”) in the High TB Areas of Wales. This short pilot will be running during November and if deemed to be a success, well supported and safe, others may be permitted in the future.
The Welsh Government continues to fund the Badger Found Dead and Deer Surveys allowing for a better understanding of how TB is impacting the wildlife across Wales. Continued support is also provided to industry led initiatives such as the Gower badger vaccination project.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Cymorth TB farm visits were suspended. Since mid-July they are once again available for farms with TB breakdowns, farms which have recently regained their TB free status and those in the ITBAN who have successfully tested clear at a contiguous test. I believe it is essential we continue to support and strengthen the relationship between vet, farmer and APHA. The promotion of biosecurity best practice is fundamental to addressing infectious disease as has been so clearly demonstrated during COVID-19 with clear parallels with isolation, use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), cleansing & disinfection and also controls and restrictions around movement. Of course, veterinary advice around biosecurity and trading policy helps combat not only TB but other diseases as well. I encourage all qualifying farmers to access the opportunities offered by Cymorth TB.
The Welsh Government continues to work with a range of Third Sector organisations set up specifically to offer welfare support and business advice to farmers, farm businesses and farming families. For a number of years a contract was in place with the Farming Communities Network (FCN) to support their delivery of specific TB advice to farmers, though this contract has now ended, FCN continue to offer advice. The Welsh Government also works with Tir Dewi and the Daniel Picton-Jones (DPJ) Foundation and Mind Cymru, with a focus on a broader range of diseases and specific farming issues. The Welsh Government has been pivotal in the establishment of the Farm Charities Partnership.
The TB Eradication Programme is led by the latest scientific developments and the Welsh Government ensures the programme continues to be closely linked with the Sêr Cymru TB Centre of Excellence at the University of Aberystwyth.
I was pleased to announce the introduction of field trials for cattle TB vaccination from 2021. The trials, which will take place in Wales and England, will enable work towards planned deployment of a cattle vaccine by 2025. The field trials will be conducted over the next four years on behalf of the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and Defra, following 20 years of ground-breaking research into bovine TB vaccines and diagnostic tests by government scientists. Professor Glyn Hewinson, Sêr Cymru Chair at the TB Centre of Excellence, will continue to play a key role in this important work.
The Welsh Government intends to introduce phase 1 of Whole Genome Sequencing from the 1st February 2021. Whole Genome Sequencing has been run on all TB samples for a number of years. These results are currently considered alongside standard genotyping/spoligotyping information and help us better to understand how infection is spreading, and sources of infection at local, regional and national level. Phase 1 aims to replace the current genotyping information with the equivalent Whole Genome Sequencing nomenclature, allowing for enhanced understanding of the epidemiology and mapping of the disease. As well as leading to new nomenclature, the change will allow new home range maps to be produced replacing the current genotyping ones. Once phase 1 has occurred, it is planned to advance toward Phase 2, where more refined approaches will become available, such as routine use of IT apps.
As we progress towards the end of the EU transition period, we have been preparing the TB Eradication Programme for any impacts which may arise. Welsh Government officials along with Defra have worked hard agreeing the requirements for compliance with the Chinese Beef Protocol in relation to TB and other diseases, and making the certification process as simple as possible for exporters. Our focus is maximising the number of cattle herds which are eligible to export beef to China, while promoting our own high domestic standards of animal health and welfare.
As I continue to emphasise, there will be changes to requirements when moving goods between Great Britain (GB) and the EU for which businesses need to prepare. Every commodity we export will require additional health assurances, regardless of the trade agreement we reach with the EU, as the UK takes on ‘third country status’. We continue to prioritise ensuring our legislation is amended appropriately for this status to be achieved.
EU funding for the UK TB programme has historically amounted to up to €31m annually. However, for 2017 the EU allocated the UK €27.64m, and for 2018 and 2019 this amount was further reduced due to reprioritisation of funding within the EU Commission. The claim made during the most recent financial year (2020/21) was against the 2019 UK Eradication Plan. The Welsh Government share is estimated at £1.26m and is expected to be received in December 2020. This is likely to be the final allocation of TB EU support for our eradication programme.
With regards the future, post EU transition, officials are working to develop the Wales Agriculture Bill White Paper which will be published in mid-December 2020. This will enable the completion of a 12 week consultation before the pre-election period begins on the 25 March 2021. Aspects of this Bill are likely to positively impact on the TB Eradication Programme going forward.
There is much to be optimistic about the progress of bovine TB eradication in Wales, with the continuing decline in TB incidence, news about scientific progress, in particular the cattle vaccine field trials, and the deployment of new tools such as Whole Genome Sequencing. However I believe the most encouraging aspect is the ability and willingness of people, both in Government and the industry, to work together toward positive outcomes despite the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.