The outgoing President of the UK’s veterinary regulator, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, spoke to PoliticsHome about improving veterinary regulation in the UK, achieving greater diversity in the UK vet workforce and the animal health and welfare concerns associated with a no-deal Brexit.
Amanda Boag is a few days away from completing her term of office as President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and will shortly be returning to her role as clinical director of a large veterinary business and supporting her successor as RCVS President from her new role as Senior Vice-President.
With Brexit dominating UK politics, she feels it is important for the College to speak out about potential risks of a cliff-edge departure from the EU:
“As a Royal College and regulator, we’re obviously an apolitical organisation, but we would reiterate that we have serious concerns that a no-deal Brexit would lead to significant issues with animal health and welfare. We feel that we need to speak out about that because it’s our role to enhance society through improved animal health and welfare”.
When pressed about why she is speaking out in this way she says:
“It’s not a political statement. It’s a statement of fact. We are genuinely concerned if we end up having no deal then animal health and welfare would suffer”.
She referred to the extensive work the RCVS has undertaken with partners such as the British Veterinary Association and the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, to highlight the need to ensure that the level of vets working in the UK remains protected and that overseas-based vets are not put off from coming to the UK to work. In particular she highlighted the joint submission by the RCVS and BVA to the Migration Advisory Committee calling on the body to recommend that vets are added to the Shortage Occupation List so that they would face fewer barriers to coming to the UK to live and work. In May she was informed that this bid had been successful and the MAC had recommended vets are included, she added:
“We are really pleased with this result and I think it is a really good example of the whole profession working together as we were working with the representative organisation (the BVA), and the Major Employers’ Group which represents the larger veterinary businesses and charities providing much of the data on the growing shortage of vets. I think it is something the whole profession feels very strongly about and it was good to see we were successful”.
It is hoped this measure might go some way to reducing the existing 12% vacancy rate across the sector, as well as ameliorating the risk of the shortage growing post-Brexit. Following the MAC recommendation the RCVS is now awaiting a decision by the Home Office as to which professions will be added to the Shortage Occupation List.
One point which the RCVS and other organisations have consistently highlighted regarding EU-trained vets working in the UK, is the prominent role they play in maintaining public health, particularly in meat production; for example, working in abattoirs to make sure that welfare standards are upheld and that meat for consumption is safe and disease-free. When asked about the prospect of removal of this position from the slaughter process or this role being undertaken by people without veterinary training, Amanda replies:
“That not only has risks for animal health and welfare, but also public health risks as well if you had untrained or less well-trained individuals doing that work”.
Diversity in the veterinary sector
Regarding diversity, Amanda Boag notes that both the veterinary and veterinary nursing professions are now majority female, but that “there are still far fewer women coming through into leadership roles”.
However, she is also keen to focus on other sorts of diversity apart from gender, to ensure that the veterinary profession is taking full advantage of the UK’s talent, for example, by ensuring that candidates from less affluent backgrounds are not put off from becoming vets:
“At undergraduate level we are very female dominated and have had a massive gender shift over the last 20 years, but we are still incredibly white and our demographics are not reflective of society”.
However, this shortcoming is something which the RCVS recognises and is working on at the moment:
“It is something that I wanted to make a focus during my Presidential year. We have set up a Diversity & Inclusion Working Group. We are trying to look at what the College can do, both on a regulatory level, but also with our leadership role in the professions in terms of promoting the importance of having a diverse workforce.”
The RCVS also works closely on diversity issues with the UK vet schools, which currently total eight institutions, with a new course based at Keele and Harper Adams Universities starting in September 2020.
The College will continue to work with the individual vet schools which have their own access-widening programmes, to ensure that as much as possible is being done to support students from less affluent backgrounds to graduate as vets and enter the profession, not least because the five-year course requires so much unpaid practical experience during the holiday periods.
As she hands over the reins to her successor Niall Connell, Amanda Boag is keen to point out he is himself a “fantastic role model for what you can achieve” in the sector given he has multiple sclerosis leading to mobility impairments and diversified into teaching once he was no longer physically able to work in practice.
The following year’s President, Mandisa Greene, who is black Caribbean, will also be the College’s first President from an ethnic minority.
Above all she says the overriding aim for the RCVS should be to ensure that “once you are in the veterinary professions, everyone gets the opportunity to reach their full potential.”
Reforms to sector governance and updating the 1966 Act
Amanda Boag sets out the twin roles of the RCVS, which was established in 1844:
“We hold professionals to account for their behaviour, which includes, in the most serious circumstances, the ability to remove professionals from the Register and therefore their ability to practise, although, thankfully, this generally happens less than a dozen times a year. We also inspect the UK veterinary schools to make sure their curricula meet our criteria and that they are providing veterinary graduates with the skills and knowledge they need to be veterinary professionals from day one.
“The College has established a Legislation Working Party, which is due to report by early 2020 and is looking into key aspects of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 because, says Amanda,: “When the legislation was passed over 50 years ago it was a very different world and there are many things that have happened to and within the profession that couldn’t possibly have been predicted then.
“We have tried our best to meet these changes through incremental updates to our legislation – for example, to our governance structure, to our disciplinary procedures, and to establish a framework for the delegation of certain veterinary procedures to veterinary nurses and others.
“However, we’re exploring whether we may have reached the natural limitations of how far we can extend the primary legislation, whether we can institute a new legislative framework that recognises where the profession is now, how it is changing and making it more flexible and future-proof ”.
The College would like any updated legislation to take into account other professions allied to veterinary surgeons, which it believes should also now be regulated alongside them, potentially including veterinary physiotherapists, equine dental technicians, animal behaviourists, meat inspectors and bovine foot trimmers.
“There’s a whole host of people who work in the sphere of animal health. We would like to be able to evolve the veterinary-led team so that veterinary surgeons continue to oversee animal care and welfare, but are able to delegate to groups of people who work alongside us – as veterinary nurses already do. We are currently hampered from doing that by the existing legislation.”
The College’s disciplinary process is also governed by the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act and the RCVS are exploring proposals for them to be updated to reflect the different world in which it now operates. For example, unlike many other medical regulators, it has no powers to suspend from practice practitioners who are awaiting a disciplinary hearing for the purposes of protecting animal health and welfare.
“Clearly there are challenges with parliamentary time, especially currently, but there may be opportunities that come with the situation that UK politics is currently in. I think that Defra is relatively open to legislative changes, but they have to be practical about what’s possible. They are certainly not shutting the doors on any change in the legislative framework for the veterinary sector”.
The College is also looking into its own Code of Professional Conduct, which includes assessing what it means for an animal to be under a vet’s care in the digital age when technology exists that might allow for consultations to be done remotely, which could be especially useful for those with disabilities or living in remote rural communities.
Amanda Boag said this wider debate is producing some “interesting discussions” but adds the central issue is really “how we can harness those technological advances for the benefit of animal health and welfare in society, but ensure they are used in a regulated, responsible way”.