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Vetxit (see what I did there?)

by
01 August 2016, at 1:00am

Gareth Cross examines the Brexit fallout in terms of the world of UK veterinary practice and wonders what may come as a result.

WHEN I WROTE MY LAST ARTICLE A MONTH AGO, I did not envisage that I would be writing my next one with a new Prime Minister in office, and although that was a possibility I do not think anyone would have predicted we would be seeing our second female PM in office by mid-July 2016.

I did not expect to be in a country about to leave the EU. I was expecting that the population in the privacy of the polling booth would quietly vote for maintaining the status quo

After such a dramatic few weeks in politics for the UK, Europe and beyond I thought it would be good to take a look at what Brexit (I think that is officially a word, although after waiting for an hour for my Windows update to install this morning it’s still not in the computer’s dictionary) means for the veterinary profession.

What does Vetxit mean for us as the UK veterinary profession is forced to leave the EU along with the rest of the UK?

One place to look for guidance would be the RCVS and they have this fairly bland statement on their website:

“We note that the results of the referendum are to leave the European Union and will now be closely following the negotiations between our Government and the EU. These negotiations are expected to take a minimum of two years. It is difficult to say at this stage how the vote will affect current arrangements, such as the Mutual Recognition of Professional Qualifications Directive (MRPQ) that allows European vets to practise in the UK and vice-versa, and it is likely to be some time before we know.

“Needless to say, we will be working with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to minimise any disruption from the transition process. As always, we will work to maintain and increase the UK’s high standards of veterinary care and animal welfare.”

Care and welfare

Two interesting separate threads there: animal welfare and veterinary care. The MRPQ has been forced upon the veterinary profession and has led to anyone from the EU countries being able to practise in the UK. This is based on the assumption by Brussels that all EU veterinary schools are equal, but to be diplomatic I would venture to say that some are more equal than others and this has led to an influx of vets of variable quality into the UK.

The RCVS also recognises quali cations from various Commonwealth (and mainly Anglophone countries), but for these vets to work here they have to get over the hurdle of EU immigration and working visa restrictions and so are relatively disadvantaged. More on that later.

Animal welfare is another issue that leaving the EU will affect. Like much of recent legislation, much of UK animal welfare legislation comes from the EU – up to 80% is the figure widely quoted. 

I had assumed the UK was leading the way in promoting animal welfare and encouraging higher welfare standards to the rest of the EU. However, reading around on the subject it appears that the UK politicians’ performance on this of late has been quite lacklustre and this excerpt from the think tank “Centre for Animals and Social Justice” (CASJ) puts it fairly well and fits in principle with the RSPCA’s take on it. Both were neutral in the lead-up to the referendum:

The main animal welfare argument put forward for leaving the EU is the idea that the UK will have greater freedom – which it would then use – to set higher standards for animal welfare than allowed for by EU membership. The agriculture Minister, George Eustice, has argued that by leaving the EU, the UK Government could redirect existing EU grants to farmers (known as the Common Agricultural Policy – CAP) towards subsidising higher welfare systems in British farming and so stop them being undercut by foreign farms operating to weaker standards.

For example, Mr Eustice claimed that pig farmers would be in a position to receive new subsidies to support the extra cost of raising their animals in better conditions that mean they don’t have to have their tails docked to prevent stress- related tail-biting. As a result, the products from those animals could be sold cheaply enough to compete with pork, etc., raised in more intensive systems, thereby making higher welfare standards in the UK economically viable.

EU rules are also said to prevent the UK from banning the live export of farm animals or the importation of some products that are no longer produced in the UK for ethical animal welfare reasons, such as fur. Similarly, although the UK led the way in banning animal testing for cosmetics in 1998, by the late 2000s it was the EU that introduced a ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics. There is an inherent element of uncertainty regarding the impact of Brexit for animal welfare.

As the UK is “mid-table” these days in terms of our place in the EU animal protection league table, it would probably not have a dramatic effect immediately, either way. But, as time passes, much will depend on the UK government’s appetite for listening to the public and valuing animal protection versus promoting ‘free’ trade and deregulation. 

Funding concerns

Science and research funding is also of extremely high importance to the profession and something that was widely raised as an issue of concern before the vote: that leaving the EU would drastically reduce funding for UK research.

Our man in Westminster (and my old parasitology lecturer) Lord Trees put this question to the government: “To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and the possible consequences of that result for research funding in the UK, what priority they intend to give to research funding in the forthcoming negotiations.”

He received this bland and predictable reply: “The UK economy is fundamentally strong and UK research and innovation are world leading. The Government will continue working with the research community to make the strongest possible case for higher education, research and innovation in the coming negotiation.”

For industry itself and for the vets affected by the machinations of the global pharmaceutical and pet food industry (i.e. all of us), the effects are difficult to predict. Lower sterling rates are good for exports and jobs. Multinational companies will have seen their bills in the UK reduce (e.g. Dechra making “Zycortal” in Skipton). Importing certain brands of dog food and many drugs though will become more expensive.

Much was made of the UK getting its border controls back if we left, so maybe we could re-introduce mandatory tick treatment before dogs and cats enter or re-enter the UK?

One unexpected medium-term bonus for many of us is the cutting of interest rates. As most practices are still small businesses many will need credit, and for practices like mine that are expanding and borrowing money this is a welcome bit of news – especially after the pre-referendum “budget of fear” they told us would go up.

Labour issues

One of the biggest issues yet to be resolved is that of free movement of labour in the EU and whether we opt to remain part of the free trade area and accept this as part of the deal.

As can be seen from Table 1, nearly one-fifth of vets practising in the UK graduated outside of the UK in the EU. This is something I am very aware of, having advertised and interviewed vets recently. While I liked having the entire EU to recruit from, what I did not like was being legally obliged to offer jobs to the EU vets first before I could turn to our traditional source of non-UK vets: our good friends Down Under.

Like many employers, not just vets (James Dyson was vocal on this in the referendum campaign), when it comes to recruiting the highest skilled workers we can, we should be free to choose from a global marketplace once we have looked at UK applicants first.

I would like to have the opportunity to offer a job to EU vets but not be obliged to do so and be able to treat any non-UK citizen the same. Trying to find an experienced vet with good English prepared to work out-of-hours is a worldwide task!

Considering those vets leaving the UK to work in the wider EU, I can only guess, but the figures must be pretty low as we will all have been forced to take straight sciences at A level and therefore none of us will have a foreign language beyond GCSE or O level, the last lesson of which will have been taken a minimum of seven years before graduation. Not a great way to encourage free movement of people outwards.

I would love to practice just between the Alps and the Med, but my rusty schoolboy French wouldn’t really cut it; it’s hard enough communicating in English sometimes (just ask the VDS).

I very much wanted to stay in the EU, and now still very much want to stay in the EFTA/EEA (i.e. the off-the- shelf “Norway” solution) which means a free trade area where we have free movement of people, are under trade regulations from the EU but nothing else is interfered with.

However, with that in mind I seem to have written quite a pro-leave article. I think this maybe reflects the mood of the country as a whole, and that of our new government: we are where we are, Brexit means Brexit, so let’s make the best of it.