Brexit and veterinary workforce pressures – a perfect storm?

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If I was to ask you what image comes to mind when thinking about vets, you’d probably think of a time your dog decided it was a good idea to eat an entire chocolate gateau, or when your cat had a stand-off with a transit van.

As much as we appreciate the important role vets play in caring for our furry friends, there’s a less glamorous but pivotal aspect of the veterinary profession which is largely overlooked.

I’m talking here about the role of vets in safeguarding public health. Vets are integral in ensuring your food is safe to eat from farm to fork. They’re also responsible for making sure animals are cared for and slaughtered in a humane way, upholding animal health and welfare legislation.

The 2001 Foot and Mouth disease outbreak is a clear example of how devastating the consequences can be when things go wrong. The first case was detected during a routine inspection of pigs in an Essex abattoir. This was eventually traced back to a farm in Northumberland where it was found that pigs were being fed untreated catering waste.

By the time it was detected, it was too late. The disease had already spread to numerous farms. The outbreak is estimated to have cost £5 billion to the private sector and £3 billion to the public sector and damaged the lives of farmers and rural communities.

What does this have to do with Brexit?

There are two key implications of Brexit for the veterinary workforce.

  • The workforce is heavily reliant on non-UK EU nationals, particularly in roles related to public health and meat hygiene.
  • Brexit is likely to increase the administrative burden on vets for certifying exports of live animals and animal products.

Attracting and retaining EU vets

Before the EU Referendum in 2016, the veterinary profession was already struggling with recruitment and retention of staff. These issues have been compounded by uncertainties facing non-UK EU vets.

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has said:

“Whilst retention has been recognised as a pre-Brexit problem it has been exacerbated since the referendum due to uncertainty about ongoing rights to employment. Considering the projected demand for vets, it is impossible for this to be met in the short term domestically. There will be an ongoing need to meet the demand for veterinary professionals from outside the UK.”

According to statistics provided to SPICe by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), there are currently a total of 2,551 practising veterinary surgeons whose registered address is in Scotland. Of these, a significant proportion are non-UK EU citizens (15%) and/or qualified in a non-UK EU country (14%).

SPIce_2019_Vet briefing_Blog_VS in Scotland

This is much higher for vets working in government service roles related to public health and trade, where 34% of practicing vets in Scotland are non-UK EU nationals. In abattoirs, which is included within government service, it’s even higher.  The latest figures show that 75% of vets in Scotland’s abattoirs are EU nationals.

SPIce_2019_Vet briefing_Blog_EU citizens registered adresses

A survey conducted by the RCVS following the EU referendum found that 18% of EU vets working in the UK were actively looking for work outside the UK, 32% were considering a move back home and 40% thought they were more likely to leave the UK.

Does this mean more jobs for UK vet graduates?

Yes, potentially, but the problem is that UK veterinary schools currently don’t have the capacity to deliver the number of graduates required to meet short-term demand. More vet schools are needed, but it takes time to establish them. For example, University of Surrey School of Veterinary Medicine was announced in October 2012 but will only deliver its first graduates this year.

Another problem is that UK graduates tend to go on to work with cats and dogs rather than in abattoirs or ports. A 2015 Vet Futures survey showed that only 6% of vet students wanted to pursue a career in government related work. Vet schools in other EU countries place a greater emphasis on public health critical work through the veterinary qualification.

The impact of a no deal Brexit

Food and drink are Scotland’s largest export industry, worth £6 billion in 2017. Trade in meat and seafood is a big part of this trade. Twenty percent (£1.1 billion) of Scotland’s food and drink exports were live animals and animal products.

SPIce_2019_Vet briefing_Blog_food and drink exports

Exports of animal products outside of the EU require an Export Health Certificate (EHC). EHCs prove that animal products meet the quality and health standards of the destination country. Each EHC must be signed by an Official Veterinarian.

Currently, animal products traded within the EU do not currently require EHCs because EU law ensures common health and quality standards across all 28 Member States. However, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, all exports of animal products from the UK to the EU would require an EHC.

Nigel Gibbens, Chief Veterinary Officer UK, has suggested that in a “worst case scenario” the volume of products requiring veterinary export health certification could increase by as much as 325%.

Such a huge increase in post-Brexit paperwork would likely lead to delays in exporting goods and increase pressure on an already strained vet workforce. A possible solution being explored by the UK Government is using non-qualified staff to carry out parts of the export health certification process.

The UK Government has committed to maintain high environmental and food standards after Brexit. It remains to be seen if an adequate post-Brexit veterinary workforce can be achieved to maintain or indeed increase standards in animal welfare while protecting public health and overseas trade.

Damon Davies, Researcher, Brexit, Environment and Rural Affairs