John Fishwick, president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), explains why the safety and security of the UK’s food supply depends on getting the Home Office to put vets on the Shortage Occupation List.
As a farm animal vet who spent many years working in frontline practice, I am well aware of the symbiotic relationship between vets and farmers.
We need farmers and farmers need us, and both professions are facing challenges – and possible opportunities – in these uncertain times as the UK prepares to withdraw from the European Union.
Alongside the day-to-day work to ensure livestock remain healthy and productive, vets are involved in a wide range of roles which are crucial to the agricultural sector.
Vets help to prevent and deal with disease outbreaks, certify imports and exports, ensure food safety in abattoirs and work to sustain our world-leading standards in animal health and welfare which are respected internationally.
Brexit has instigated much discussion around the UK agricultural sector’s reliance on migrant labour, but post-Brexit workforce problems within the veterinary profession could have more far-reaching and less planned-for implications for the farming community.
These issues of recruitment and retention amongst vets are not new, but they have been brought into sharp relief by Brexit. The UK is currently highly dependent on non-UK EU vets.
Statistics from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) show 47 per cent of new registrants in 2016 were from non-UK EU vet schools.
In particular, the meat hygiene sector depends heavily on these vets and it has been estimated that around 90 per cent of Official Veterinarians (OVs) working in UK abattoirs come from the EU. This rises to 100 per cent of Official Veterinarians working in abattoirs in Wales.
Brexit may decrease the numbers of non-UK EU vets who can or want to work in the UK; RCVS research suggests one in five non-UK EU vets are actively looking for work in other countries, while 44 per cent say they are ‘fearful for their future’.
At the same time demand for vets in the meat hygiene sector is likely to increase dramatically post-Brexit.
If we are treated as a third country for trading purposes, the number of veterinary certifications for trade could increase by as much as 325 per cent, requiring a substantial rise in numbers of Official Veterinarians to perform this role and potentially leaving a large gap in the expertise needed both in our abattoirs and at our borders.
In a perfect world, we would have a better understanding of how these workforce problems would pan out and there are projects underway, such as Vet Futures and the recently launched Veterinary Capacity and Capability project, which aim to examine this in more detail.
However, the imminence of Brexit calls for urgent solutions, which is why BVA has been pushing for a guarantee of working rights for non-UK EU vets and for the veterinary profession to be placed on the Shortage Occupation List by the Home Office.
Of course, the uncertainty of Brexit is felt by everyone and we can only hope our calls will be heard amidst the many voices that are active in this discussion.
A strong relationship between the veterinary and agricultural sectors will help us to best navigate the unpredictable times ahead and ensure both professions continue to feel secure and supported in order to deliver food produced to the very highest standards of quality, welfare and health.