Brexit and the UK veterinary profession

"Uncertainty of any sort results in volatility, and Brexit will be no exception."
Raghuram Rajan

Every year the AVA President and CEO join a meeting of the International Veterinary Officers’ Coalition (IVOC), together with the American, British, Canadian, New Zealand and South African national veterinary associations. There is always value in shared experience, as we face very similar issues and challenges.

One notable update this year was the BVA’s report on the impact of the 2016 Brexit decision, on both the veterinary profession in the UK, and the BVA as a national association.

Ahead of the EU Referendum in June 2016 the BVA did not take a policy stance for or against, despite some pressure to do so. Instead they produced an analysis of the potential impact on the profession, animal health and welfare, the agricultural sector and other key areas. It was clear from that analysis that the UK’s membership of the EU has had a profound effect on the working lives of veterinarians. Those impacts include animal health and welfare, the impact that free movement of people has had on the workforce, availability, safety and efficacy of medicines, rules governing trade in animals and animal products, and the way that research is regulated.

Once the referendum result was known, those implications became reality. In their report titled Brexit & the veterinary profession – a strong voice for vets, the BVA sets out a range of recommendations concerning the following:

  • the veterinary workforce
  • animal health and welfare
  • food hygiene and safety
  • veterinary medicines
  • research and development
  • trade
  • devolution and Northern Ireland.

BVA established a Brexit Working Group (BWG) under the chairmanship of Alick Simmons, former UK Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer. The BWG’s task was to identify key issues for the veterinary profession arising from Brexit to inform lobbying and their first priority was a set of overarching principles to inform more detailed work on each area.

These overarching principles, agreed by the BVA Council in September 2016, are that existing animal health, animal welfare, public health, veterinary medicines, workforce, and environmental protection standards must at least be maintained at the same level, or a level equivalent to current EU standards. In addition, every opportunity should be taken to improve standards in accordance with evidence-based risk analysis of animal health, welfare and ethics.

Because Brexit has many implications, the BWG consulted extensively with all parts of the profession, other veterinary organisations and partner organisations. Their recommendations are the basis for BVA’s lobbying and advocacy during the Brexit negotiating period. To support a strong lobbying position on behalf of the veterinary profession, the BVA also worked collaboratively with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).

Brexit poses many risks, but leaving the EU may also offer opportunities not possible while a member of a trading bloc, such as less need to compromise on some standards.

The observation from the BVA’s IVOC representatives was that responding to Brexit has helped the BVA to more clearly articulate and quantify the value of veterinarians. As the report states: “they are vital to the economy and local communities and, as in Australia, work in a range of settings: clinical practice providing preventive healthcare and treatment, carrying out surveillance, advancing standards of animal welfare; in research advancing scientific understanding; throughout the food chain to secure public health, food safety, in industry and technology ensuring a competitive profile; and in government providing expertise to public policy making.”

The BVA believes Brexit provides an opportunity to develop a strong, competitive and innovative food industry. That industry will require appropriately skilled professionals and technicians, supported by evidence and sound standards and processes. The veterinary profession is in a unique position to provide those skills.

There were early pronouncements from the UK Government that it would promote the UK’s ‘unique selling point’ of high animal welfare and food safety standards, allowing the BVA to emphasise the vital importance of the veterinary profession in achieving it.

The effect on the profession is a fascinating subject, and although Brexit is an ongoing process, there is a great deal for us to learn from the BVA’s experience. The effect on policy and communications resources was enormous. The period of uncertainty prior to the referendum required analysis of every eventuality and careful management of divergent member opinions on a divisive issue. The issue has, and continues to, play out long after the referendum, requiring ongoing diversion of resources as other plans need to be put on hold.

As our social and political climate changes both domestically and globally, we’ll be asking ourselves not only what the AVA’s “Brexit” might be, but how well are we prepared to respond.

My thanks to the BVA for providing information on Brexit and sharing their experience. Much of this column has been adapted from the report’s introduction.

Graham Catt

This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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