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“Put on your plastic apron and join in the national game of ‘which car is my client hiding in?'"

09 July 2020, at 9:00am

Today I write from a classroom I am sharing with an 11 and a 13-year-old. This classroom closely resembles a domestic kitchen, the main difference being the abundance of old and dysfunctional laptops and computers that have been resurrected to equip it. The other difference from a normal classroom is the lack of any other children and teachers. The PE class has been completed courtesy of Joe Wicks in the school gym/living room. I am off work today as our practice has gradually stumbled back into a new, weird, inefficient normal. My four-day week has been reinstated after months of an all-or-nothing working rota many of us have had to put up with after furlough was introduced.

It has been interesting following the commentary delivered on veterinary social media on the furlough scheme and how practices have been managing. When we can look back on this with some historical perspective, I think that the vet profession can be fairly proud of itself. Not everything has been done right, but we have continued to provide a service to people and their pets, maintained animal welfare provision, kept the food chain moving, kept horses sound, etc, all through the most restrictive of the lockdown times and times when outright fear of the virus has been great.

I remember driving past the opposition practice the first week lockdown was eased (week seven of the three-week lockdown, end of May as I remember) and seeing the vets in the car park. They were speaking to the clients in the wind and drizzle, plastic gowns flapping in the wind, masks in place. It was a sign of the times and looked both heroic and also slightly ridiculous – ridiculous in that if someone had told me six months ago this was how we would all be working, I would have given it no credence.

I posted a poll on a well-used vet forum that week and out of 336 respondents, approximately 70 percent were not allowing clients in the building at all, 19 percent were very occasionally but in full PPE, 6 percent were allowing clients in the waiting room but not the consult room and 5 percent were allowing clients in for PTS consults only. Medications were being dispensed out of windows and across tables blocking doorways. Farm and equine vets who normally work outside anyway were having to find ways of restraining and working with their larger patients and keeping the regulation 2m from clients. The country has never seen anything like this before and the vet profession has kept their services running remarkably well for the public, at great hardship for the workers and financial strain for practice owners.

The furlough scheme has been the one and only help from the government for vets in all this. We did not qualify for business rate relief or any other grants. Loans are avail-able. At the start, the banks were demanding that practice owners give a personal guarantee for these. This means that although the government was guaranteeing the loans up to 80 percent, the bank would come after the individual first. So, the government was backing the loans, but only after the bank had come after your house and personal life savings first. The banks had their wrists slapped on this and the government now is the primary backer. But at the time it all started practice owners had to put their home on the line to take these loans. I remember thinking that if things get worse it will just be the banks and cockroaches left to rule the planet. We managed to arrange a two-month loan repayment holiday from our own bank for a property loan we had. It took them two months to provide us with the paperwork to do so! So, in the worst cash flow period they were no help.

I am writing about furlough as many of you have been overworked when your colleagues have been putting their feet up and getting 80 percent of their wage. This was never going to be a time when everything was fair and, moving forward, we are all going to have to put this behind us. For most practices, furlough was the only way that outgoings could be reduced as turnover dropped. Wages are usually the biggest outgoing for a practice but still only around half of the outgoings – rents, rates, insurance, utility bills, drug bills, VDS subscriptions, loan costs, lab finance payments, etc, still need to be paid. None of those went down when the income dropped.

The next stage is still unclear – what will happen or when. So, for now, put on your plastic apron and join in the national game of “which car is my client hiding in?”