The British Veterinary Association’s outgoing President Simon Doherty spoke to PoliticsHome, reflecting on his year in office, the challenge of Brexit and other issues within the veterinary sector like recruitment and retention of staff.
Given Brexit has dominated his term of office, Simon Doherty could not ask for a better time to be heading up the British Veterinary Association. A vet, he was born in Northern Ireland and has extensive experience working across the animal health sector as well as a spell working at the Department for International Trade working on inward investment and boosting UK exports in the animal science and aquaculture sectors.
Mr Doherty is clear about the current challenges facing the UK vet sector, particularly the Northern Ireland border: “We have no idea what is going to happen in terms of movement of horses, companion animals, livestock and animal products across the Northern Ireland – Republic of Ireland border”.
He adds that there might well be “potential disruption to the whole equine industry. We know that a lot of Irish horses will come over to compete at Cheltenham, Newmarket, and Aintree. Those are movements we are just a little bit unsure about” and adds that alongside Brexit, it is important for the UK government to fulfil its promises and enshrine animal sentience into UK law.
However, BVA’s President is clear that one thing Brexit has done is reinforce the crucial role vets play in society ensuring standards are maintained, often in roles rarely seen by the public like those working in abattoirs. He also highlighted the role vets play in contributing to the UK workforce in other areas such as movement of animals which require notable levels of certification.
With a significant proportion of vets working in the UK coming from the EU and a 10-15% vacancy rate in the small animal sector, there are clearly concerns that not enough UK vets are being trained here in the UK. Brexit has “led to some of the discussions that we have been having around capacity within the profession” Doherty says.
“Our education funding and widening access working group have reported a position on veterinary education and the future provision of veterinary surgeons within the UK,” he continues.
Given the number of UK university vet schools is relatively small, he is pleased that student numbers are set in increase in the next few years, for example the first cohort of students at the University of Surrey, as well as the dual intake this year at the University of Nottingham and a new veterinary school opening in 2020 as a joint venture between Harper Adams and Keele universities.
Doherty is keen to highlight that all aspects of the animal health and welfare sector came together to ask that vets are restored to the ‘shortage occupation list’, and July brought the happy news that the Home Office had accepted the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation on this: “It was work that we undertook, initially alongside RCVS and colleagues in Defra. We certainly did quite a bit of work campaigning to get Michael Gove and David Rutley very much on board with that.”
Mr Doherty highlights a recent meeting with Caroline Nokes while she was Immigration Minister which went well for the vet sector: “Caroline was really pleased that the veterinary profession as a whole is already looking at capability themselves and not just relying on immigration policy as the silver bullet.”
Doherty also highlights the work of the Future Veterinary Capability and Capacity Project (FVCCP) which has been assessing the wider aspects of the roles that vets are carrying out and the ability to build capacity and retain vets in the profession as well.
This is part of a wider programme of work on veterinary wellbeing and recognising that mental health is an area of concern as well.
Doherty points out that his successor as President, Daniella Dos Santos, who comes with a companion animal and exotics background, is set to take much of this work forward in her term of office and that she will also investigate inclusion and discrimination within the profession.
BVA’s President highlights other areas the organisation has been campaigning on including banning live animals in circuses and toughening up sentencing for animal cruelty.
Mr Doherty highlighted the issue of the use of non-stun slaughter; specifically, the possibility of banning the export of non-stun slaughtered animal products.
“We believe that the derogation in law should only be used to supply non-stun meat to domestic religious communities that require it. Defra minister David Rutley has been quite receptive to giving some consideration to our points.”
The BVA President was also clear about improving the labelling of meat products that had been processed in this way so there is much greater clarity about where these products end up.
Doherty is keen to highlight that his presidential theme has been ‘one veterinary community’ promoting the idea of ‘team vet’ and the unique nature of vets working alongside veterinary nurses and other allied professionals.
He also highlighted key working on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and explained that BVA is closely involved with RUMA and works closely with NOAH, the National Office for Animal Health.
BVA is also fully signed up to ‘One Health’ which is an interdisciplinary way of working on a pan-European level. Simon Doherty will also be involved next year in the 6th World One Health Congress in Edinburgh, because as he says:
“Vets can’t do One Health by themselves, medics can’t do One Health by themselves, environmental campaigners or organisations can’t do One Health by themselves – it’s a collaborative approach.”
A positive example of One Health joined-up thinking in action is a joint project between the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) on smoking cessation and highlighting the impact of passive smoking on companion animals.
“That in turn can help to improve the likelihood of someone giving up smoking – it’s those kind of things in the broadest sense where you are looking at human wellbeing, animal wellbeing and environmental wellbeing and it’s through interdisciplinary working that you can have a really positive effect so that’s what One Health embraces.”
Equally BVA has worked alongside other organisations like the BMA, the Wildlife Trust and the National Trust to highlight the positive impact that having a companion animal can have on someone’s mental health, because it ensures they get out into green spaces to walk the animal.
Mr Doherty concludes by referring to work BVA has undertaken on sustainability and how as livestock production strives to come ever more productive, ensuring that this doesn’t come at the cost of animal health and welfare.
He says BVA released a ‘sustainable animal agriculture position’ earlier this year and discussed how this sits well with Michael Gove’s public money for public good mantra, which seeks to reward farmers for their environmental stewardship rather than merely their production attributes.
As he steps down from the Presidency and becomes a Senior Vice President for a further year at BVA he will also take on a new role at the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University in Belfast (QUB). He wishes his successor Daniella well as she takes up the post the post and says it will be an incredibly busy year:
“Daniella is an absolute superstar. She is coming in very much still engaged in practice. My advice would be it will be an incredibly busy year. Enjoy the ride.”