Statutory TB testing of cattle in GB during the COVID-19 outbreak

The Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) recognises the potential challenges faced by farmers during the COVID-19 outbreak. APHA has a contingency plan in place for the specific scenario of reduced veterinary capacity to undertake TB skin testing.

APHA published advice for vets at the beginning of the outbreak in order to ensure a consistent approach to the prioritisation of TB testing across GB. Further APHA briefing notes for official veterinarians (OVs) have since been published on the APHA Vet Gateway and will continue to be updated as necessary. Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, APHA has continued to instruct statutory TB skin testing. APHA is continuing to closely monitor the situation, and further adjustments to TB testing instructions may be made as appropriate. The Q&A below applies to GB, unless specifically stated otherwise.

Q&A

General

It is normal to feel unsettled during this type of fast-moving situation. In addition to the general COVID-19 advice on GOV.UK, farmers can access various support organisations which can help, including the Farming Community Network across England and Wales, Tir Dewi in Wales and RSABI in Scotland.

Farming Community Network 03000 111999 (open 7am to 11pm)
Tir Dewi 0800 121 4722 (open 7am to 10pm)
RSABI 0300 111 4166 (open 7am to 11pm)
Samaritans 116 123 (open 24 hours a day)

The FarmWell website has lots of useful information on maintaining your personal and business resilience. The Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) has a page on COVID-19 advice for farmers and growers. For further information about the UK government response to COVID-19 including advice for businesses, visit GOV.UK

APHA’s position throughout the COVID-19 outbreak is that TB testing should only continue if, in the vet’s judgement, it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) and British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA) have both published guidance for vets continuing to TB test, and how it might be done safely. Now that public health restrictions have eased, it is expected that TB skin testing should go ahead as normal.

Please contact your Veterinary Delivery Partner (VDP) in England and Wales, or official veterinarian (OV) in Scotland who carries out your TB testing. They will discuss rearranging your TB test with you, considering veterinary resource available at that time. If the test cannot be rearranged within your testing window, ask your VDP or OV to contact APHA so this can be recorded.

TB skin testing in officially TB free (OTF) herds

A temporary amendment to TB testing policy in England and Wales was put in place to assist with timely testing of cattle herds when public health restrictions (social distancing) were in place. OVs could exempt calves under 180 days old from skin testing in OTF herds in England and Wales if it was not possible to test them safely. Please note that this temporary amendment was discontinued on 1 August 2021. All eligible animals must be included in TB skin tests, which normally include calves 42 days and older in most cases and calves under 42 days in some tests, particularly in Wales.   

In England, during the first national lockdown in March/April 2020, APHA temporarily permitted the closing date of TB skin testing windows to be delayed on a case by case basis. APHA reviewed its position in light of the third national lockdown and there are no plans to re-introduce any temporary extensions to TB testing windows at this time. APHA will continue to monitor the situation as the COVID-19 outbreak progresses. Cattle keepers are advised to book their TB test with their OV as soon as they are informed of the testing requirements. Keepers who cannot complete their TB test within the stipulated window should contact APHA for advice as soon as an issue is identified. Please also refer to the Q&A below on overdue testing for further advice. 
In Wales, testing windows cannot be delayed or extended for officially TB free (OTF) herds, but cattle keepers wishing to complete a test earlier than the start of their test window can contact their OV practice and APHA to discuss further.
In Scotland, there are currently no changes to the instructions on flexibility for routine surveillance tests. This will be kept under review.

It has always been the case that some TB tests, particularly for large herds are routinely completed in several parts. If one or more parts of a test are still outstanding when the testing window closes, the test becomes overdue. If a TB test becomes overdue, whole herd movement restrictions are automatically applied and the herd’s officially TB free status is suspended (OTFS) until the test of eligible animals has been completed with negative results. Even if part(s) of the test are completed, the whole herd is still subject to movement restrictions, not just the animals yet to be tested. Once the test is completed at a later date, the next TB test of the affected herd will usually be scheduled in line with the date by which the test should have been completed, not when it was actually completed. In scenarios where the TB test has been significantly delayed, APHA may alter the date of the next test.

Normally all bovines 42 days of age and older must be included in herd skin tests carried out to maintain or restore the herd’s officially TB free (OTF) status. Animals under 42 days old may also need to be included in tests, particularly in Wales. If not all eligible animals are tested, then the test is considered incomplete, and the animals must be tested at a later date to complete the test. This is a requirement to maintain the recognition by international trade partners of the OTF status conferred on cattle herds in GB. 

Yes. If tuberculins have been injected and the test couldn’t be read within 72 hours (+/- 4 hours), then the test is not valid and must be repeated. The test cannot be repeated until at least 60 days have elapsed from the date of previous injection of tuberculins.

The requirements for statutory pre- and post-movement TB testing remain unchanged. If you are intending to move cattle off your holding that require a pre-movement test, contact your vet in good time to make sure that they can accommodate the testing. As these are private tests, if the vet that normally carries out your TB testing is unavailable, then another vet with the relevant official controls qualification for TB testing can undertake the testing. Before purchasing cattle, check that animals requiring a pre-movement test have been tested with negative results. For farmers in the Low Risk Area of England, Low TB Area of Wales, and in Scotland, you are strongly advised to check with your vet that they can accommodate statutory post-movement testing of eligible animals within the required window before moving cattle onto your holding.   

Overdue TB skin tests

No. APHA will usually maintain the start date of the window when the test should have been completed so that future routine surveillance tests still happen at the same time of year. Once the test is completed at a later date, the next TB test of the affected herd will usually be scheduled in line with the date by which the test should have been completed, not when it was actually completed. In scenarios where the TB test has been significantly delayed, APHA may alter the date of the next test. 

APHA acknowledges that some farmers will not be able to present their cattle for TB testing during the COVID-19 outbreak. This may be as a result of illness due to COVID-19, the need for self-isolation, caring for others who are ill etc. In the first instance, please contact your VDP in England and Wales, or OV in Scotland to discuss rearranging your TB test. If it’s not possible to complete your TB test within the prescribed window, the test will become overdue. You should contact APHA for advice as soon as possible, preferably before the test becomes overdue. In the event of tests becoming overdue, APHA will follow the established procedures. Whole herd movement restrictions are automatically placed on the holding and the herd’s officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended (OTFS). This is because once a test becomes overdue, the TB status of the herd is unknown and it will be considered a potential risk to other herds. APHA’s overdue TB test procedure already has a built-in check point to assess for any exceptional circumstances that prevented the test being completed on time. To facilitate this check, VDPs and OVs will share information with APHA on which holdings and TB tests are being delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Cattle keepers must ensure that animal welfare is not compromised whilst their herd is under movement restrictions due to overdue TB testing. It is strongly advised that farmers contingency plan for this situation as the COVID-19 outbreak progresses.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, APHA relaxed overdue TB testing procedures in England and Wales in response to the disruption to skin testing caused by the public health restrictions. As public health restrictions eased, APHA resumed its normal process for dealing with overdue TB tests on 1 July 2021. If your test becomes overdue, in addition to movement restrictions being applied to your herd (OTF status suspended), you will receive a letter from APHA advising that the test is overdue and the steps you should take to achieve compliance with the testing requirements before consideration is given to arranging a compulsory test. APHA’s overdue TB test procedure has a built-in check point to assess for any exceptional circumstances that prevented the test being completed on time. It is essential that you contact APHA prior to your test window closing to inform them of the reason you have been unable to test so this can be considered. This includes any COVID-19 related reasons that prevented the test from being completed on time.

In GB, on 1 July 2021 APHA resumed referring keepers to the payment agencies for consideration of a reduction to their single farm payment. Any cattle keeper who has extenuating circumstances that prevent them from completing their TB test should contact APHA as a matter of urgency prior to the test window closing. This was always an option available prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Legislation in GB allows for the reduction of compensation payments where a keeper has failed to TB test their animals on time. Reductions in compensation apply to any reactors found at skin tests overdue by 60 days or more.

Whole herd movement restrictions are automatically placed on cattle herds that become overdue with their TB testing, and their officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended (OTFS). This means that cattle cannot move onto or off the holding without a licence issued by APHA. If you are in this situation and you wish to move cattle, you need to apply to APHA for a licence using the following contact details.

England
03000 200 301
[email protected]
A licence application form is available on GOV.UK to complete and email to APHA

Wales
0300 303 8268
[email protected]

Scotland
03000 600 704
[email protected]

Private interferon-gamma blood testing in England 

APHA will accept requests for private interferon-gamma testing subject to laboratory availability. Please refer your vet to the APHA Vet Gateway for further information.