The announcement on the successful bidders who will become the seven regional delivery partners responsible for TB tests in England and Wales under the changes was due to have been made by now.
But following the provisional award of contracts earlier this month, the ‘cooling off’ process to allow consultation before final confirmation has been extended after the decision was challenged by unsuccessful bidders.
It is understood bids linked to XLVets, which describes itself as ‘a group of independently owned, progressive veterinary practices working together to achieve the highest standards of veterinary care’, had been provisionally awarded six of the seven regional lots.
This came as a surprise to many within the industry as, throughout the process, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) had made it clear no one business could dominate the lots in this way in order to ensure competition over the provision of tests.
However, the situation is far from clear as the counter argument has been made that the winning tenders had been submitted by separate individual companies, which work together within XLVets’ network.
The main concern among farming and veterinary organisations, however, was that the tender process appears to have ended up being highly competitive on price, meaning the amount individual vets would be paid for TB testing from April is likely to be substantially reduced.
The bids submitted by various veterinary companies were meant to be evaluated on the basis of scores based on the technical aspects of the bid, worth 70 per cent, and commercial elements, mainly price, accounting for 30 per cent of the score.
Under the new TB testing arrangements, from April 1, Delivery Partners will be responsible for TB testing in seven regions in England and Wales.
It will remain the keeper’s responsibility to arrange testing but to do so they will need to liaise with the Delivery Partner for their geographical region.
Delivery Partners will then be responsible for allocating the actual test work - which will continue to be undertaken exclusively by fully qualified vets - and for assuring the quality of the work performed.
Delivery Partners are contractually required to offer testing work to veterinary businesses operating within their geographical region.
Livestock keepers will be able to express a preference for a particular sub-contracted veterinary business to undertake their testing, and this preference will be honoured ‘where possible’.
Keepers who wish for testing to be undertaken by other vets retain the option to pay for testing privately.
While the lower price for TB testing would achieve the beneficial effect of reducing the budget, and potentially freeing up funds elsewhere, farming and veterinary organisations fear it could result in the severing of the link between farmers and their local vets.
British Veterinary Association president John Blackwell said: “I think the Government has been romanced by the bottom line of cost.”
“We are not party to any official announement yet but we are nervous that cost has played far too great a weighting in the tender process.”
Under the new arrangements, delivery partners are contractually required to offer testing work to eligible veterinary businesses even if they are not part of their own business.
This is intended to ensure, where possible, farmers are able retain their local vet, if they wish.
But Mr Blackwell said radically cutting fees for testing meant some private vets would not be willing to carry them out at the official price, unless the farmer topped up the fee.
“Or if the farmer is not willing to do this, they will have to accept a person [vet] with whom they have no working relationship with whatsoever,” he said.
He said the cost implications of the new TB arrangements could lead to more overseas vets being employed for TB testing.
But he stressed the vital importance of the relationship between a farmer and their local vet when it comes to managing all the issues around a TB breakdown and prevention measures.
NFU livestock chairman Charles Sercombe said the changes ‘have the potential to increase the costs of TB testing to the farmer’.
“I am led to believe local vet practices would struggle to provide the service at the level the tender contract has been provisionally awarded at,” he said.
“We haven’t had formal confirmation yet but if some of the information leaking out so far is correct there is concern within the wider farming industry about the potential impact of one provider getting TB testing for the whole of the UK.”
An APHA spokesman said the agency could not comment on any aspect of the procurement process because it is commercially confidential.
He said the primary driver of the change was ‘improving the quality of testing, and thereby disease control’.
“This aligns with moves towards a more collaborative and strategic approach to working in partnership with the livestock industry and the veterinary profession,” he said.
“In introducing this new way of working, APHA has been very aware of the importance of the relationship between the individual livestock keeper and their vet in preventing and controlling disease and for ensuring the health and welfare of animals.”
He said Delivery Partners would be contractually required to offer testing work to eligible veterinary businesses operating within their geographical region.
“Livestock keepers will be able to express a preference for a particular sub-contracted veterinary business to undertake their testing, and this preference will be honoured where possible,” he said.
“Keepers who wish for testing to be undertaken by other vets retain the option to pay for testing privately.”
XLVets said only the companies that had been awarded the tenders could comment on the process.