Management of TB breakdowns in England and Wales during the COVID-19 outbreak

The Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) has contingency plans in place for managing TB breakdowns during the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes activities such as disease investigation, TB testing, licensing, reactor removal, post-mortem inspection and tissue culture of reactor cattle. This guidance applies to both England and Wales unless specifically stated otherwise. For Scotland, please direct any queries about TB breakdown management to APHA Scotland.

Q&A

TB testing

In breakdown herds, short interval tests (SITs) will continue to be scheduled from 60 days after the last reactor is removed. The window for completion of SITs is 30 days. In England and Wales, until further notice, closure of the testing window for short interval tests will be delayed by 30 days, meaning that the window for completion of the test will now be 60 days. This will be kept under review. In Scotland, short interval testing windows remain unchanged and the situation will be kept under review.

If reactors are found in this situation and it’s not possible to safely TB test some or all eligible calves under 180 days old, provided all other eligible animals were tested, APHA will schedule breakdown testing even though the skin test that triggered the breakdown is incomplete. The first short interval test (SIT) of your herd will be scheduled for 60 days after removal of the last reactor. You and your vet should consider whether animals that could not be TB tested safely at the disclosing test have grown to a size where they can be tested safely at the first SIT.  

This will depend on whether reactors are disclosed at the short interval test (SIT). If eligible calves under 180 days old can’t be TB tested safely and at least one reactor is found, provided all other eligible animals in the herd were tested, APHA will schedule the next SIT as usual even though the test is incomplete. The next SIT will be scheduled for 60 days after removal of the last reactor. You and your vet should consider whether animals that could not be TB tested safely at the previous test have grown to a size where they can be tested safely at the next SIT. If eligible calves under 180 days old can’t be TB tested safely and the rest of the eligible animals in the herd test negative (or only one or more inconclusive reactors are found), the test is incomplete and can’t count as a qualifying test for the purposes of restoring herd OTF status. If any adjustments can be made to allow younger animals to be TB tested safely, your vet should make arrangements to return to complete the test. If there is no realistic prospect of them returning soon to complete the test, APHA will considered it a check test and will schedule a further SIT. All eligible animals in a TB breakdown herd, including those under 180 days old, must complete the required number of TB skin tests with negative results before herd OTF status can be restored. Herds in the High Risk Area and Edge Area of England and herds with OTF status withdrawn (OTFW) in Wales must complete at least two rounds of short interval testing with negative results. OTF status suspended (OTFS) herds in Wales are required to complete one SIT, and OTFS herds in the Low Risk Area of England one or more SITs before OTF status can be restored. The number of SITs and the interpretation, in most instances, depends on whether any typical lesions of TB are found and/or M. bovis, the bacterium that causes TB, is identified in the test reactor(s) or slaughterhouse case(s) that triggered the breakdown.

In Wales, most TB breakdown herds require two consecutive short interval tests (SIT) with negative results to regain officially TB free status. During the COVID-19 outbreak, these tests may need to be completed in two or more parts. The time taken to complete the final part of the potential ‘releasing SIT’ (the test before movement restrictions are lifted), can be extended to a maximum of 120 days. A delay of over 30 days in completing the final part of the releasing SIT will affect scheduling of the first post-breakdown check test of the herd (6M test).

When a slaughterhouse case is found, the herd’s officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended and the herd of origin of that animal is placed under movement restrictions. Food Standards Agency meat inspectors send samples of the TB lesion(s) found in the carcase to an APHA laboratory to try to identify the TB bacterium M. bovis. In the meantime, APHA will instruct your vet to carry out an immediate skin check test of the herd. If M. bovis is identified in the laboratory, further breakdown testing can be scheduled even if eligible animals under 180 days old were not included in the immediate check test because social distancing could not be maintained.

Yes, although this is subject to laboratory availability. APHA laboratories are running at reduced capacity due to the COVID-19 outbreak and as such, mandatory interferon-gamma tests are being prioritised. From 1 August 2020, APHA will accept requests for private interferon-gamma testing, although the situation is being kept under review. Please refer your vet to the APHA Vet Gateway for further information.

This will depend on the availability of APHA field sampling and laboratory staff to undertake the required number of blood tests during the COVID-19 outbreak and the ability to comply with social distancing rules on the affected farm. APHA will inform you if the interferon-gamma blood test of your herd has to be postponed.

Reactor removal, slaughter and compensation

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) have contingency plans in place in the event of reduced slaughterhouse capacity to deal with TB reactor cattle. APHA also has a contingency plan in place in the event of reduced haulier capacity to transport reactors to contracted slaughterhouses. If removal of skin test reactors, interferon-gamma test positive or direct contact (DC) animals is delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, those animals must remain isolated on farm until removal is possible. Farmers are responsible for the isolation of such animals pending their removal, and must ensure that their welfare is maintained during this time, particularly if removal is delayed. SITs will continue to be scheduled from 60 days after the last reactor is removed, therefore any delay in reactor removal will have a knock-on effect on subsequent SITs. However it is likely that SITs may be delayed anyway due to reduced TB testing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

APHA, in partnership with the Food Standards Agency (FSA), identified a potential issue with the availability of slaughterhouses for receiving TB reactor cattle at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. This was due to a combination of pressures, including reduced availability of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to sample reactor cattle, and reduced FSA staffing levels. In order to ensure the most efficient use of slaughterhouse staff and PPE resources, it was necessary to temporarily consolidate the processing of TB reactor cattle to three main slaughterhouses in England and Wales, providing effective geographical coverage to ensure compliance with animal welfare in transit legislation. Measures have been implemented to provide more confidence in PPE supplies and enable sufficient staffing levels, meaning that seven APHA contracted slaughterhouses are now processing TB reactors, with some operating on a part time basis. These are Beesons (Crewe), Cig Calon (South Wales), F Redfern & Sons (Derbyshire), PJ Kings (Gloucester), RJ Trevarthen (Cornwall), Stillmans (Taunton) and TG Sargeant & Sons (Uttoxeter). APHA will continue to monitor the situation closely in liaison with FSA.

Priority reactor cattle are defined as:

  • cattle in the last two months of gestation (but not within the last 28 days, as these animals cannot be transported)
  • dairy cattle in peak lactation
  • all animals under six months of age
  • any animals considered more physiologically at risk e.g. recent caesarean section or post-calving complications

Any priority reactor cattle fit to travel will still be taken to the nearest available APHA contracted slaughterhouse. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, these are temporarily limited to seven slaughterhouses; Beesons (Crewe), Cig Calon (South Wales), F Redfern & Sons (Derbyshire), PJ Kings (Gloucester), Stillmans (Taunton), RJ Trevarthen (Cornwall) and TG Sargeant & Sons (Uttoxeter) until further notice (see question above). As long as priority reactor cattle are fit to travel and their specific welfare needs are met, they can still be transported to the slaughterhouse. If any reactor cattle (not just priority reactors) are unfit to travel then APHA will arrange for on-farm slaughter as per normal procedures.

As a temporary measure due to the COVID-19 outbreak, fewer APHA contracted slaughterhouses are able to take TB reactors (see question above). These are, until further notice, Beesons (Crewe), Cig Calon (South Wales),  F Redfern & Sons (Derbyshire), PJ Kings (Gloucester), Stillmans (Taunton),  RJ Trevarthen (Cornwall) and TG Sargeant & Sons (Uttoxeter). These slaughterhouses in England and Wales together provide effective geographical coverage to ensure continued compliance with animal Welfare in Transport legislation. All journeys will be planned carefully to take into account animal welfare, to minimise journey times where possible, and to ensure compliance with the welfare regulations.

APHA only arranges on-farm slaughter of TB reactor cattle in cases where they are unfit to be transported to the slaughterhouse, for example due to lameness, or animals within the last 28 days of pregnancy and those that have calved in the last seven days. Cattle that are not properly identified or are within a medicine withdrawal period cannot enter the human food chain and must also be slaughtered on farm. However you do have the option to arrange and pay for on-farm slaughter/euthanasia and removal to a knacker’s yard. By opting for privately arranged on-farm slaughter, you will not be eligible for any compensation that may have been payable for the animals. If you are considering this option, please contact APHA so that the need for a post-mortem examination at the knacker’s yard can be assessed.

APHA’s policy regarding on-farm slaughter remains the same. APHA only arranges on-farm slaughter in cases where cattle are not fit for transport to the slaughterhouse, for example due to lameness, or animals within the last 28 days of pregnancy and those that have calved in the last seven days. Cattle that are not properly identified or are within a medicine withdrawal period cannot enter the human food chain and must also be slaughtered on farm. However you do have the option to arrange and pay for on-farm slaughter/euthanasia and removal to a knacker’s yard. By opting for privately arranged on-farm slaughter, you will not be eligible for any compensation that may have been payable for the animals. If you are considering this option, please contact APHA so that the need for a post-mortem examination at the knacker’s yard can be assessed.

Prior to removal of the animals, you should discuss arrangements with the haulage contractor to establish how loading operations can be conducted safely, in line with government advice on social distancing. All personnel involved in loading the cattle should stay at least two metres/six feet apart.

If you need to self-isolate and will be unavailable when your animals are collected, please notify APHA during the valuation call. APHA will pass this information on to the slaughterhouse and they will discuss this directly with you when making arrangements to collect your animals. If removal of reactors is delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, animals must remain isolated on farm until removal is possible, and farmers must ensure that their welfare needs are met during this time.

Yes. If an animal is due to calve within 60 days of its identification as a TB reactor, a request can be made to APHA to delay its slaughter to allow for calving and retention of the calf. If you want to delay removal, you need to provide a written declaration from you as the owner, and a private vet of your choice before the request can be authorised by APHA. The relevant forms (TB211/TB212) can be downloaded from GOV.UK under the Delayed removal of in-calf cattle section. This is at the owner’s expense. Whilst social distancing measures are in place during the COVID-19 outbreak, you will need to discuss with your vet how the visit can be carried out safely and in line with current public health advice.

Yes. Earlier in the COVID-19 outbreak the Food Standards Agency (FSA) was only able to undertake the required post mortem inspection and sampling of IRs, reactors and DCs in slaughterhouses contracted by APHA to take reactors. This was due to the pressure that the COVID-19 outbreak put on FSA, particularly on supplies of face masks and other personal protective equipment required to inspect and sample IR, reactor and DC cattle. From 14 September 2020 you can privately send your IRs, reactors and DCs to slaughterhouses other than those currently contracted by APHA to take TB reactor cattle. However you are advised to check directly with the slaughterhouse before making arrangements as it is a commercial decision as to whether they accept privately slaughtered IRs, reactors and DCs. APHA staff will confirm the agreement with the slaughterhouse and FSA prior to issuing the movement licence. Please also note that local difficulties for the FSA to facilitate private slaughter may still arise as a result of the current COVID-19 outbreak.

Providing a pregnancy diagnosis in the face of COVID-19 outbreak has been classed as non-urgent and this requirement is suspended until further notice. You may present a pregnancy diagnosis certificate at valuation if you have already had one issued in the previous 90 days. If you do not have a pregnancy diagnosis certificate at valuation then the valuer will value the animal as though one were present. All animals declared as being in calf during valuation will be checked at the slaughterhouse.

Yes. In England under the Cattle Compensation (England) Order 2019, there is a requirement to reduce compensation by 50% for animals brought into a herd that has lost its officially TB free (OTF) status that are removed as reactors or direct contacts before the herd has regained its OTF status. The reduction in compensation does not apply where the herd is registered to a bovine TB health scheme accredited by the Cattle Health Certification Standards (CHeCS). In Wales under the Tuberculosis (Wales) Order 2010 (as amended), there is a requirement to reduce compensation by 50% for animals brought into a herd that has lost its OTF status that are removed as reactors or direct contacts before the herd has regained its OTF status.

Due to fewer cattle being sold at livestock auction markets over the last four weeks, Defra will roll forward the April compensation rates in a small number of the compensation categories for non-pedigree dairy cattle. Although sufficient amounts of data had been collected, it was unrepresentative. Therefore, as a temporary measure, where collected sales price data are inadequate, Defra will apply the table valuations calculated for April 2020. The Cattle Compensation (England) Order 2019 allows previously determined table values to be used when there are inadequate sales data. This temporary measure will be in place until further notice and will be kept under regular review.

Case management 

APHA has temporarily suspended DRF visits to farms until further notice, and will instead be conducting them over the telephone. An APHA vet will contact you to complete the disease report form and answer any questions you may have about the breakdown. Please note that in the High Risk Area of England only, not all TB breakdowns are selected for a DRF visit therefore you may not be contacted by a vet. However, you will still be contacted by APHA administrative staff to gather the necessary information for case management purposes.

Due to social distancing rules during the COVID-19 outbreak, APHA has temporarily reduced the number of visits undertaken by staff to only those that are essential. APHA will only undertake visits to knacker’s yards and other premises to carry out post mortem inspections of animals slaughtered on-farm if they are essential for case management decisions. For example, a visit may not be required when other animals from the same group slaughtered at an abattoir show visible lesions, and the necessary number of samples have already been sent for tissue culture. Additionally, APHA may need to prioritise these visits due to reduced staff and/or availability of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) required for this work. APHA is closely monitoring the situation and will keep it under review.

This will depend on the classification of your TB breakdown i.e. whether your herd has had its officially TB free status suspended (OTFS) or withdrawn (OTFW). It will also depend on whether there were other reactors found at the same TB test, and their post-mortem inspection results if applicable. In some cases there will be no implications, whereas in other cases an additional short interval test may be required, and the interpretation used for the test (standard or severe) may be affected. APHA will make an assessment on a case by case basis and advise you accordingly.

Yes they do, as your herd will already have been under TB restrictions for a reasonable length of time. Persistent breakdown measures such as removal of standard IRs, and interferon-gamma/antibody blood testing of severe IRs, are designed to minimise the likelihood of your herd being free to trade with infected cattle still present, and to remove those infected animals before they have a chance to spread infection in the herd.