Poorly Pooches Abandoned by Brexit
David Hencke reports on the national vets shortage, caused by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the Coronavirus crisis and a rise in the number of people buying pets
The impact of Brexit, the Coronavirus pandemic and a boom in people buying pets has combined to create a perfect storm of a national vets shortage since the UK left the European Union.
The latest manifestation of the vets crisis was the postponement yesterday of the introduction of agri-food checks at the UK border from 1 October to July next year. Originally planned to start this April, the checks were originally postponed to October, but just 17 days before they were due to begin, they have been put back a further eight months.
The Government blamed this on the pandemic disrupting supply lines which have left some supermarket shelves empty, ignoring that it has also had growing problems recruiting enough vets to do the new checks.
“We have repeatedly raised concerns about veterinary capacity so we expect this will have played a part in the decision as well,” James Russell, president of the British Veterinary Association, said. “The announcement has come quite soon after the extension of the Northern Ireland grace periods, which is linked to veterinary capacity concerns. In addition, we are hearing anecdotally that some EU countries also have veterinary workforce concerns.”
Parliament was warned four years ago in 2017 by his predecessor Simon Doherty and by Dr Christine Middlemiss, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ chief veterinary officer, that the vast majority of vets checking food imports came from outside of the UK.
The Lords EU committee later concluded in 2018 that it had brought the Government’s attention to the “overwhelming reliance of the agricultural sector on EU citizens providing official veterinarian services” and that “these veterinarians also play vital roles throughout the process of maintaining the UK’s biosecurity”.
It called on the Government to “take steps as a matter of urgency to ensure that both the public and private sectors are able to retain or recruit qualified veterinarians to maintain the UK’s biosecurity post-Brexit”.
Since then, the Government has taken two steps. Firstly, it is opening more veterinary schools in universities. Secondly, the Home Secretary has agreed to treat vets from the EU and other countries as a shortage profession, allowing qualified vets to come to the UK.
However, the new veterinary schools will not deliver any new, qualified British vets for five years; with newly graduated students leaving them having to pay back £100,000 in student loans and likely to take jobs in higher paid private practice rather than obtaining government roles. Meanwhile, Priti Patel’s initiative has flopped, due to a combination of Brexit and the Coronavirus crisis. The number of EU vets coming to the UK dropped from 533 in the first five months of 2019 to 155 for a similar period up to last May.
Worse still, the French and Dutch Governments – which also have shortages – are recruiting vets from Spain, Portugal and Romania who would have come to work in the UK. France changed its law so that any foreign national can become a French Government vet. Other qualified EU vets can simply move from their countries to France – while to go to the UK they will now require a visa, have to take a high level English language test, and factor in the costs of healthcare.
At the same time, the Coronavirus lockdowns have produced a boom in people purchasing pets for company – with 3.2 million households acquiring a new animal, according to a survey by the pet food industry.
One animal charity in Wood Green, north London, reported a huge surge. Linda Cantle, director of pet and owner support services at The Animals Charity, said: “Enquiries increased by more than 253% during lockdown and over 20,000 people contacted Wood Green about getting a new pet between April and June – more than half of which were for dogs.”
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According to the British Veterinary Association, this has led to some vets closing their lists to register new pets while some private practices have told customers that they cannot recruit equine vets meaning that they can longer provide services to people who have horses.
A Conservative solution to this problem came from MP John Redwood who tweeted: “We are short of vets because of the EU misuse of the NI Protocol. Let’s take control of our own internal trade and free the vets to look after sick animals.”
This led Simon Doherty replying to him, calling Redwood’s claims “utter rubbish”. He added in another tweet: “Someone’s been watching a bit too much James Herriot. You need to reappraise the work that vets do to maintain #AnimalHealth #AnimalWelfare #Productivity #sustainability & #OneHealth across *all* species inc humans!”
In a House of Lords hearing in January, crossbench peer Lord Cameron of Dillington suggested that officials with no veterinary training could sign-off agriculture produce for export until the British Veterinary Association pointed out that this would not be acceptable to the UK’s trading partners.
Labour peer Lord Young of Norwood Green suggested using apprenticeships to treat animals, until it was also pointed out that they would not have enough training to cope with such a variety of pets and farm animals.