MSP urges reprieve for disease centre

SAC Veterinary Services Disease Surveillance Centre, Greycrook, St. Boswells.

SAC Veterinary Services Disease Surveillance Centre, Greycrook, St. Boswells.

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BORDERS MSP John Lamont has called on the Scottish Government to reconsider the closure of disease surveillance centres, which help detect and diagnose the spread of virus outbreaks across Scotland.

His call comes as the Schmallenberg virus, which causes birth deformities in livestock, has spread across England and is threatening to cross the border into Scotland – with the Borders on the front line of the midge-borne epidemic.

Last year the Kinnaird Report recommended the Scottish Government reduce the number of disease surveillance centres (DSCs) in Scotland. One is at Greycrook in St. Boswells, staffed by three veterinary surgeons and 12 scientific and administrative staff.

Richard Lochhead, SNP Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, welcomed John Kinnaird’s conclusions on the future delivery of the vetinary surveillance service in Scotland, saying rationalisation “will ensure that we have services appropriate for the 21st century.”

Each of the DSC laboratories, run by the Scottish Agricultural College, provide diagnostic services for local farmers when their animals become infected by a disease, identifying any emerging outbreaks and tracking the spread and evolution of epidemics.

Mr Lamont, MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, said: “[Schmallenberg] virus has had a devastating effect on livestock across Europe, and having started in Belgium last December it has already spread to England with 83 reported cases. Scotland is in imminent danger and it is vital that we are able to effectively track and tackle this virus should it spread further.

“That is why I am calling on the SNP Government to reconsider the closure of disease surveillance centres across Scotland. These centres are vital for detecting and diagnosing diseases such as Schmallenberg and without them it would seriously affect our ability to respond.

“As the Borders would be first hit should the disease spread to Scotland, it is especially important that the centres such as the one in St Boswells are kept open. Our farmers cannot afford to go unprotected and we must make sure our cattle stay healthy.

The Conservative MSP added: “Diseases such as this have had a devastating effect on our agricultural industry in the past that we remember all too well. This virus is acting as a timely reminder why it is so important to track these infections and to do this effectively our surveillance centres must remain open.”

All eight DSCs, which together employ 23 veterinary staff and about 100 scientific and support staff, provide a post mortem examination service with supporting bacteriology and parasitology on site. Samples requiring additional tests, such as virology, histology, serology or biochemistry, are sent to the central analytical laboratory in Edinburgh. Data then collected from the diagnostic service forms the basis of the national disease surveillance system for Scotland.

An industry expert expressed fears that the closures would lead to less effective surveillance of new and changing diseases, as well as the loss of a “centre of excellence” and high-tech jobs in the Borders’ rural economy.