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“Plot spoiler: none of her readers will end up dead”

07 December 2020, at 9:00am

It has been an interesting time reading the general press over the last few months. Recycled scare stories about the drop in COVID-19 antibodies in previously infected patients was finally put into some context when researchers from Public Health England (PHE) and the University of Birmingham found that T-cell immunity from COVID-19 lasts “...at least six months”. T-cell immunity from SARS (a closely related coronavirus), the study comments, has been shown to last up to 10 years. For any of us familiar with vaccinating dogs for rabies and doing blood tests, this will come as no surprise. The vaccine is licensed for three years, but we know that you want to take that blood test as close to the 30-day legal limit as possible to maximise chances of passing the lab threshold. Two years down the line you would not expect that dog to be pumping out rabies antibodies, but it will be immune to rabies. Just as I am not sitting here with my veins full of anti-tetanus antibodies, but when I go out in the garden later, I am confident that my last tetanus jab five years ago will protect me if I cut myself.

Another treat for us all in the press was Rachel Johnson’s article concerning vet fees (Johnson, 2020). Sympathy for the millionaire in the article rapidly evaporates as she mentions that her dog got ill whilst she was on a short trip to Greece, drops in that she paid £1,200 for, you guessed it, a cockapoo, states she chose not to insure her and then complains that there is no NHS for pets, and so on. She recounts a trip to the vets after she ran her own dog over and “the X-rays, treatment, and overnight stay at the vet in Minehead came to more than £800”. Pretty reasonable, I think we can all agree. The main thrust of her rant is over a £2,500 bill for an intestinal FB removal. A Facebook veterinary satire group ran a story on it which reached 500,000 people and was shared 2,500 times. They attempted to put her right on a few things but are yet to get a response from her.

This is another of her statements: “There is no market mechanism, no mix of public or private, to keep any sort of lid on fees. Vets have you over a barrel (‘It’s a racket’, remember).”

As we all know, this is factually incorrect. Of course there is a market mechanism, just walk out from the door of one vet, drive five miles up the road and go to their competitor. Competition for fees and undercutting the opposition is a thread of veterinary practice life that has run from James Herriot (including in the recent TV adaptation as well as the books), to the rise of budget practices in the early 2000s and continues to this day. Our practice loses and gains a trickle of clients each year on the basis that we are cheaper or up the road is cheaper, depending which way the client is moving.

It is especially annoying to be lectured on fees by someone who is so well connected, doing a job we could do aged five (writing). I can’t find her fees for The Spectator, but her brother was earning £275,000 a year for writing a 1,100-word weekly newspaper column, before he took a pay cut to do his current job.

I’ll end on a few brief pointers for younger vets on how to counter the “vets are so expensive” rant you may face from time to time yourself.

Firstly, don’t deny they are expensive: visiting the vets is expensive and denying it can make you appear unsympathetic and wealthy – unappealing character traits as demonstrated above. Next, separate out the costs of running a practice from what vets get paid. I was a school governor for a while and it struck me that the budget and salaries of a local primary school are similar to vets. Vets “get paid about the same as a teacher” I tell people, “or a higher-level human nurse”. If that doesn’t help, then you can invite them to shop around or set up their own practice. Rachel Johnson – if it’s such an easy way to make money, why not set up a veterinary practice instead of writing about how expensive they are? I’d challenge her to a job swap. She can run a vet practice for a month and I’ll write her column. Let’s see how that pans out. (Plot spoiler: none of her readers will end up dead...)