Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Animal Diseases

10:30 am

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for taking this important matter. I know he prioritised doing so and that he has a genuine interest in the issue to which it relates. His assistance with this serious matter is much appreciated, particularly as it is affecting farmers in County Waterford and further afield. This Commencement matter, a number of parliamentary questions that were submitted in recent weeks and other questions sent to the Minister of State's office emanate from a meeting I held with Waterford members of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, a couple of weeks ago, at which the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, was present. At that meeting, it was brought to my attention there has been an increase in bovine TB outbreaks in the west Waterford and north Cork areas. The people present felt there was a strong correlation between vacancies in the regional veterinary office responsible for the administration and delivery of the TB eradication programme, which seeks to put effective controls in place.

As the Minister of State is aware, in 2020 bovine TB rates rose above 4% for the first time since 2012. While the specific cause of each of TB outbreak varies, it is a well-established fact that badgers play a central role in the spreading of TB to cattle. In order to eradicate TB, we have to address the risk posed by badgers. I know the Department, through the regional veterinary offices, is committed to removing badgers from areas in which there is a severe TB outbreak in cattle, which has been shown to be linked to badgers and is committed to vaccinated badgers where the risk posed to cattle by infected badgers has been brought under control.

Unfortunately, the success of the programme is determined by the number of staff available to carry out vaccinations and, in many cases, remove badgers from areas where there is a challenge. There clearly is a challenge in Waterford, particularly in the western part of the county. The figures with which I have been provided show herd incidence of bovine TB on 21 October 2019 stood at 2.3%. Today it stands at 4.78% and rising, which is very concerning and the impact of rising TB outbreaks is far-reaching. The disease causes untold hardship for farmers and farm families in rural island whose herds have to be culled. While the Department operates a good TB compensation scheme, it does not compensate for the distress and fear widespread among the communities I represent due to the rising number of cases.How many vacant posts exist in the Waterford and Cork North regional veterinary offices? What is the current incidence rate within these regional veterinary office, RVO, areas? When will these posts be filled?

While of course we must support farm families who are unfortunate enough to suffer TB outbreaks, there is an element of being penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to having vacancies in our RVOs. On one hand we are paying out in excess of €19 million in compensation for the culling of 22,245 animals across 5,217 herds and on the other hand we have 86 staff vacancies according to a reply I received to a parliamentary question. If we filled these vacancies it would have a dramatic positive impact on bringing the incidence of TB outbreaks under control. From my interactions with farmers, I know they are committed to working with the Department and the regional veterinary offices, but they must have the confidence the staff are in place in those regional veterinary offices to help them in tackling what is a very serious problem. I would appreciate the Minister of State's response in the matter.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Cummins for raising this issue,which is important nationally but obviously in the area of Waterford in particular, as the Senator has outlined. I am acutely aware of the financial and emotional burden faced by farmers after a TB breakdown. We must do everything we can, working together as a sector, to tackle this problem. I come from a suckler farm in south Kildare and I remember more than 20 years ago, when I was a schoolboy, the devastation that hit us by having a reactor. It really is devastating. I remember the feeling around the house. It is a blow to the whole family and the whole family farm enterprise and I would not wish it on anybody.

The bovine TB, BTB, eradication programme is implemented through 16 regional veterinary offices, RVOs, throughout the country. The RVOs are operated and managed by two area management teams, AMTs, whose main function is to ensure delivery of the programme and verification of effective controls. These RVOs are staffed by teams of veterinary, technical and administrative personnel. Teams do not solely work on the BTB eradication programme. They are also involved in various other animal health and welfare programmes.

Unfortunately, due to retirements, promotions and transfers, vacancies can arise within these RVOs from time to time. I have been made aware of the vacant positions and I recognise the urgency in filling these posts. It is imperative that posts are filled as soon as possible. As of 7 November 2021, the number of vacancies nationally within the RVOs is five veterinary vacancies, 17 technical vacancies and 12 administrative vacancies, which is a total number of 34.

Within the Waterford RVO, as Senator Cummins has raised, there are no veterinary vacancies but there are three technical vacancies. There are no administrative vacancies, so the total vacancies in Waterford RVO is three. However, I wish to include the Cork North RVO which covers a significant portion of west Waterford and which Senator Cummins referred to specifically. In regard to Cork North RVO there are no veterinary vacancies but there are also three technical vacancies and one clerical officer vacancy, which is a total of four. It is important to note the figures do not include staff members on different types of leave such as maternity, parental leave and so on.

Following many successful years of reducing bovine TB levels to the benefit of Irish farmers and the sector, there is a concerning incremental increase in the disease since 2016. In 2020, herd incidence on a year-to-year basis breached 4% for the first time since 2012 and reactor numbers exceeded 20,000, the highest number since 2009. There are positive indications of progress however. The TB situation for 2021 is likely to represent an improvement compared with 2020. Working together, we can build on this momentum. On a year-to-date basis, as of 7 November 2021, national herd incidence stands at 4.18%. Waterford herd incidence stands at 5.05%. Cork North herd incidence stands at 8.34%. The specific causes of each outbreak of TB varies according to the particular epidemiological circumstances and requires a range of actions to address the problem.

Within each county the TB programme focuses on wildlife, how disease is distributed in the area, continuous programmes, gamma interferon, blood testing, cleansing and disinfecting, testing compliance and isolation of reactors. Each TB outbreak is investigated by a veterinary inspector to identify the likely source of the infection. In the case of every outbreak involving two or more standard reactors, there is a veterinary visit to advise the herd owner on how to eliminate infection and necessary measures to assist in reducing the risk of recurrence. This disease causes untold hardship for farms and farm families, and although the challenge is serious, my Department, working together with stakeholders and engaging with farmers, is committed to driving down the levels of this disease and eradicating it. I acknowledge the concerns Senator Cummins raised, and for us in the Department to play our part in working closely with all stakeholders and farmers, we need the full complement of staff in those offices. My officials are working hard to fill vacancies as they arise.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the commitment of the Minister of State. I will take up a couple of points. In a reply to a parliamentary question issued on 3 November the Department stated the 16 regional veterinary offices currently had a complement of 738 staff working and 86 vacancies. Today the figure provided by the Minister of State for 7 November indicates only 34 vacancies. Either there was a massive increase in staff between 3 and 7 November or one of the figures is wrong. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could investigate that matter, because I am taking this matter very seriously.

The figure the Minister of State gave for the incidence rate of 5.05% for Waterford is higher than the 4.78% that was provided to me on 26 October. Frankly, the Cork figure of 8.34% is very alarming and that is reflective of what farmers are telling me on the ground. Clearly we have a rising incidence rate and we need to fill those vacancies without delay, specifically the three technical vacancies in both Waterford and Cork North RVOs. As I said, farmers will work with the Department but they must have the confidence the RVOs are fully staffed to assist them in tackling what is a very serious problem in these areas. I know the Minister of State is committed to assisting in that regard.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for his detailed supplementary reply. I will look at that parliamentary response he received from the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. If there is a discrepancy between the numbers, it is important to note that the figures I have today do not include staff members on different types of leave. However, there is a sizeable gap between those two numbers, so I will check that and revert to the Senator on it.

Earlier this year the Minister launched a new bovine TB eradication strategy for 2021 to 2030. The implementation of this strategy is overseen by the TB stakeholder forum with support from three new working groups on science, implementation and finance to ensure all aspects of the strategy are addressed. These working groups comprise representatives from all stakeholders. Extensive consultation with the three working groups will develop a shared understanding of how collectively we can reduce TB incidence along with implementing the new TB eradication strategy. I accept the Senator's point of concern that, while there are not veterinary vacancies in Waterford, there are technical staff vacancies, as I have outlined. I want to put the full range of that on the record of the House. Only by acknowledging that challenge can we fix it in as timely a manner as possible. My officials are working very hard to do that and I am happy to stay in close contact with the Senator on this important issue for farmers in the Waterford region.