Brexit and the veterinary profession

01 July 2017, at 1:00am

Veterinary Practice looks at the issues affecting UK animal welfare and how the BVA’s Brexit report prioritises high standards in practice

MANY PEOPLE WILL NOW HAVE READ the comprehensive report from the BVA containing 54 pages of Brexit assessment. The list of contributors is impressive and the content of the eight sections (veterinary workforce, animal health, animal welfare, food hygiene and safety, veterinary medicines, research and development, trade, devolution and Northern Ireland) provides much to consider. The basic thrust is that future standards should at least be the equivalent of current EU standards and that any public money that is used to replace existing support from the EU Common Agricultural Policy should at least encompass animal welfare, disease surveillance, biodiversity and environmental stewardship. The report highlights strengths and weaknesses with current activities and arrangements. For example, the future role of EU-qualified veterinary surgeons to maintain current veterinary activity will require veterinary surgeons to be added to the “shortage occupation list” or its equivalent. The need for maintaining the availability of trained veterinary nurses from the EU is also sought. The aim of the recommendations is for the current volume of veterinary surgeons, carrying out various functions, to be maintained beyond Brexit. The question immediately arises: what is the alternative? There are non-EU and non-UK registrations each year. If continuation of working arrangements for EU citizens were abandoned, then presumably veterinary surgeons and nurses from other parts

 of the world would be offered the opportunities currently enjoyed by the EU intake. Or, and this is not considered in the report, veterinary roles would be re-assessed and carried out by para-professionals. There could be an opportunity here to really understand the current roles of the profession. The report highlights the need to review veterinary roles in food hygiene and public health and to make these roles more attractive to UK graduates. 

A practical solution 

The current high standards of veterinary education and the expectations of UK graduates would appear to indicate that a shrinkage of vets and an increase in paraprofessionals would offer a practical solution. Within large animal practice the role of the trained para-vet, under veterinary supervision, appears to work well for the benefit of farmer clients and the application of veterinary skills where they are most effective. The trend of working more and more with healthy animals and improvement programmes, rather than sick beasts, is giving better veterinary job satisfaction. Consultation and review of the veterinary role is called for in the report. It may be that it is necessary to change the expectations of graduates to match the work or change the work to meet the expectations of graduates. 

Disease transference 

There are major issues with transference of disease from outside the UK. Outbreaks of infection linked to migrating birds and insects are examples of threats shared with Europe. It is clearly sensible to maintain and enhance information alert sharing and the introduction of disease control behaviour by linked countries. In addition to maintaining surveillance and health standards, the report identifies the need to enhance UK disease prevention and highlights tick and tapeworm treatments for travelling pets and equine microchipping. UK-wide controls require a veterinary input linked to partnership working between industry and government, particularly relating to endemic diseases and animal health challenges. This would appear to require existing EU guidance to be moulded and enhanced to incorporate specific UK risks and threats. Clearly the early recognition of legislation would benefit trade negotiations.

Strong standards

Animal welfare standards are seen as a strength for the UK and high standards are seen as a major selling point for UK produce. The report indicates that imported goods are expected to be clearly labelled with equivalent welfare standards. This will be a very difficult area if overseas goods are imported from countries and producers applying lower animal welfare practices. Veterinary surgeon input into onfarm production standards in the UK is variable between species and within species. Although it is absolutely right to insist on high standards, there are many gaps between intention and delivery. The assertion that higher standards
relate to higher profits is difficult to accurately quantify despite the many surveys of the top quartile compared to the bottom. Many producers still equate high veterinary fees with reduced margins. If the BVA recommendations on UK animal welfare are to be realised then considerable work is needed to collate best practice. An annual veterinary visit in order to maintain the supply of prescription medicines and a visit from a Red Tractor assessor does not guarantee high welfare standards, but it is a start. UK veterinary surgeons have considerable experience of food safety and hygiene leading to food scares, with direct impacts on producers. Encouraging veterinary careers in food issues is seen as important, together with making sure that any future legislative framework is based on risk. Home-grown and imported risks are a huge area of understanding and development, in order to prevent scares with the potential for considerable negative economic impact. Looking at the veterinary medicines section of the report, the UK government is expected to maintain the current regulations so that UKregistered products can be sold in Europe and EU-manufactured products made available in the UK. Issues arising from the use of medicines are to be tackled regardless of borders and antimicrobial resistance is highlighted as one area of veterinary
action. It does seem that the need for veterinary prescription is enhanced and the UK can set a standard over and above that of other countries. New product research and development of veterinary medicines in the UK, for sale worldwide, is identified as
an attractive opportunity. Ongoing funding for collaborative veterinary research and development with EU institutions is requested, with an identified need to attract talent from outside the UK. Veterinary certification is seen as an important part of future international risk-based trading. It is seen that the application of standards is best done at the place of production rather than at a border. A single standard would replace multiple standards, which lead to confusion and avoidance. Understanding the requirements and issuing certificates is a headache for many in practice and a single source of advice would be welcomed. The report does not mention standards applied by produce purchasers and retailers; a mirroring of production standards between the
commercial and the legislative would be of benefit in the field. If the production environment within the UK has to be considered alone, then there are enough specialist practical veterinary surgeons able to advise and make a real difference to future rules and regulations. Regardless of independence issues, it is seen as important that animal welfare applies throughout the four administrations of the UK. Additionally it is intended that the provision of veterinary services and trade across existing and future borders would not be disrupted after Brexit. On page 12 of the report, the main areas for veterinary employment in the UK are listed as clinical practice 75.5%, academia/research 8.6%, government/ policy 6.2%, industry 4.1% and charity 2.8%. It will be interesting to see how this structure changes. There is a phrase within the report that many will feel should be an overarching principle of post-Brexit planning and something to look forward to: “minimising complexity and cost”. The report, Brexit and the veterinary profession, can be downloaded from the BVA website.