Introducing the UK's new Chief Veterinary Officer

Find out what the key priorities will be for Christine Middlemiss in her first year as the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer

28 September 2018, at 11:11am

Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work in government

I come from a farming background in the south of Scotland. I was always interested in being a vet because I like to know why things work and why animals do what they do.

I graduated from Glasgow Vet School and spent quite a long time in practice – both in the south of Scotland and north of England. Subsequently, I damaged my back from all the work you do in practice, so I joined government in 2008. I have worked in delivery aspects of government out in the field through to policy roles in London.

I really enjoy working in government. I came here because of the physical constraints of being in practice and, actually, I have never used my vet brain to make such a difference.

Christine Middlemiss speaks about her background, why she applied for the role of Chief Veterinary Officer for the UK and what the key priorities are for the first year in her new role.

What made you apply for the role of CVO in the UK?

Coming from the UK and a farming background, I’m very passionate about animal health and agriculture here. I was working out in Australia as Chief Vet for New South Wales – a fantastic personal and professional learning experience. But the opportunity to be back here when there is so much going on around EU Exit and what farming and our livestock industry might look like for the future, and to be part of influencing that, was an opportunity too good to miss.

What were the biggest challenges you faced as CVO in New South Wales?

At the time, in Queensland, there was an outbreak of white spot virus, which led to white spot disease in farmed prawns. White spot is like the foot and mouth disease of the prawn. For me, that was quite a steep learning curve about the virus (in terms of how it works, how the prawn industry works and the link to recreational fishing), but the principles are the same: How did the disease get there? How long has it been there? Where has it spread? What are the most effective control measures? It was hugely fascinating and a great opportunity to work through something like that.

What key skills and experience will you be drawing on while CVO in the UK?

While I was in New South Wales, we implemented new legislation – a biosecurity act that took all the different plant, animal health, aquatic health and non-native invasive species regulations and made them into one act. It was about responsibility in terms of biosecurity. That was quite an interesting way to approach it. The EU legislation has moved on a lot; there is a new EU animal health law coming out, which is more risk-based, proportionate and prescriptive. Things like that present opportunities for what our legislation could and should look like to achieve the outcomes that we want.

What are your main priorities for this year?

Firstly, never taking our eye off disease control. We’re always thinking about exotic animal diseases; the ones we’re most concerned about at the moment are bluetongue virus in France, African swine fever in eastern Europe and the recently confirmed Newcastle disease in Belgium. Avian influenza hasn’t been so bad this winter, but in previous winters it has been, so we’re constantly looking at re-evaluating our controls around that.

And then of course, in England, there’s the TB issue that we’re constantly dealing with; we’re five years into our 25-year TB strategy. The Secretary of State announced a review earlier this year and the report will be published later. That’s really looking at: we’ve come five years, what more do we need to do? What further controls will help us achieve eradication in that timeframe?

Then there is EU Exit, where I’m involved in informing some of the technical aspects. And antimicrobial resistance – a huge global problem that the UK has quite a prominent voice on. Our agricultural industry has done a great job of reducing use of antibiotics by 27 percent in three years and so I look forward to working with them further on that.

There is also the Veterinary Capability and Capacity Project and, for me in government, making sure we have enough vets with the right skills enjoying government work and feeling they are able to make a difference.

Is the government’s current strategy for controlling bovine TB working?

The evidence we have to date is that the increasing disease level has reduced. It has plateaued out. There are a number of control methods in place, including badger culls and increased cattle controls; there are lots of things going on because it’s a very insidious disease. We aren’t going to see a sudden drop over months – it’s a disease that must be managed over a number of years.

How does the government plan to tackle the staffing issues anticipated with EU Exit?

The workload will be dependent on what deal is agreed upon in the end and decisions about the common rule book and white paper. At the moment, we’re planning for all eventualities.

Most certificates are about food products that contain animal products. We are working very closely with APHA and their delivery partners to map out what those might look like. Although we will not have a definitive answer until we have the details of a deal, there is a huge amount of planning underway for the potential outcomes.

We have the Veterinary Capability and Capacity Project, where Defra is working with the BVA and RCVS. We all recognise that this is such a significant issue and we need to work together on it.

It links in to some of the other initiatives like Vet Futures, which, for government, is looking at: what do we need the professional structure to look like and how many vets do we need? And as a profession, what do we need it to look like for people to have happy, successful careers?

Are there plans to incentivise vets to take on more government work?

We have provided some funding to the Royal College in terms of talking about government roles as opportunities. We know that we have a problem across the profession of people dropping out and there’s a lot of work trying to understand why they drop out and what alternative options there are for them to remain within the profession. Government works well from that perspective.

Government is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly switched on to the need for a good work-life balance. Flexible working patterns are really important to people.

Before I joined, I didn’t have a good perception of what government work looks like. When you’re in here, and you understand how we make evidence-based decisions that are informed by risk assessments and working out what the most appropriate control options are, and how we provide advice to ministers and stakeholders on those, it’s really fulfilling.

For me, it’s like doing the complex problem solving you do in practice, but on a national herd level.

What opportunities do you think EU Exit will bring for the profession?

Our role as vets in the evidence base and supporting decision making has become much more apparent. There is a huge opportunity for us, including to be stronger in talking about the role we have in food safety, food security and antimicrobial resistance. Vets know and trust the profession and farmers listen to them.

I don’t see vets in practice in one box, vets in government in another and people doing food safety work somewhere else. We’re all on that continuum; we’re all there about the assurance and verification of the products we’re producing – be it for our UK consumers or those elsewhere in the world. There’s huge opportunity in how we use our expertise to support animal health and welfare.

Senior Editor at Veterinary Practice

Jennifer Parker, BSc, PgDip, MSc, is a science writer and editor. She studied zoology, endangered species re-covery and palaeoanthropology in the UK. Jennifer was Senior Editor of Veterinary Practice magazine for almost three years; she left the publication in October 2019 to move abroad and pursue a freelance writing career.

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