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Taking stock and looking ahead

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2015 was a year in which the veterinary profession in the UK looked to the future. However, as a brief review of some of the things that happened during the year soon illustrates, there was also much to keep it occupied in the present.

The focus on the future was a result of the joint RCVS/BVA Vet Futures project, which, by engaging with vets throughout the year, sought to develop a vision for where the profession wants to be by 2030 and begin to work out how to get there. As far as the present is concerned, the year saw, among other things, a new Royal Charter for the RCVS, a General Election, concern being expressed about a shortage of ‘experienced vets’ and continuing arguments about bovine TB.

On bovine TB, most of the attention again centred on the culling of badgers in England, although this wasn't the only aspect of the Government's approach that proved contentious. New arrangements for the delivery of TB testing and other official veterinary services took effect in England and Wales during 2015, from April 1 in Wales and from May 1 in England. The new arrangements were introduced following a tendering exercise launched in 2014, as a result of which seven private Delivery Partners have been contracted by the Government's Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to provide these services in different regions of England and Wales, with work being subcontracted to local veterinary practices. The tendering exercise was controversial from the start, and both the exercise and the transition to new arrangements proved difficult and stressful for many of the practices either affected or involved. The Government rarely talks about cost and responsibility sharing these days, unlike the situation a few years ago. However, with the introduction of the new arrangements, and by reducing its spend, the Government has in effect transferred not only responsibility but also some of the costs of TB testing to the private sector.

Regarding badger culling, debate focused not just on whether badgers should be culled at all but also on the culling methods to be used. In April, after much internal debate, the BVA reiterated its support for humane, targeted culling in areas where badgers contribute to the persistence of bovine TB in cattle but, on the basis of the results following the second year of culling trials in Somerset and Gloucestershire, withdrew its support for the use of controlled shooting as a culling method, calling instead for the trials to be completed using cage-trapping and shooting only. In August, Defra announced that culling would continue in Gloucestershire and Somerset, and would also be extended to Dorset. The BVA expressed disappointment that controlled shooting would continue to be used. However, the announcement was welcomed by the British Cattle Veterinary Association, which said it remained confident that the strategy would make a meaningful contribution to controlling TB and that it looked forward to other areas becoming involved in due course.

Arguments about badger culling continue to detract from all the other efforts being made to control bovine TB. In England, these included the launch of a new biosecurity campaign and proposals to introduce statutory postmovement testing of cattle moving from high- to low-risk areas. In Wales they included extension of the Cymorth TB initiative, which aims to enhance the role of private vets in helping farmers to manage the disease. Efforts to use every available tool that might help tackle bovine TB suffered a setback in December when the Welsh Government announced that it would be suspending its badger vaccination project because of a worldwide shortage of BCG vaccine.

Arrangements for veterinary disease surveillance continued to be of concern, not just in England and Wales following the closure of several surveillance centres in 2014, but also in Scotland where, in June this year, Scotland's Rural College consulted on proposals to change its surveillance network to provide ‘a uniquely Scottish solution to the problem of tighter budgets and increased disease threats’. A proposal to close the veterinary surveillance centre at Inverness proved particularly controversial and, although the outcome has still to be decided, the Scottish Government subsequently indicated that the closure plans would be reconsidered. The debate in Scotland, as was the case in England and Wales, highlights the difficulty of maintaining effective disease surveillance at a time when budgets are being reduced; however, the ability both to detect and respond to disease outbreaks remains essential. This was illustrated again during 2015 by, for example, an outbreak of low pathogenic avian influenza in poultry in Hampshire in February and of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Lancashire in July. Looking further afield, highly pathogenic avian influenza caused significant economic losses to the poultry industry in the USA, and the year has also seen outbreaks of African swine fever in Eastern Europe and the re-emergence of bluetongue in France. Disease is dynamic and does not respect borders, and effective surveillance is vital.

The state veterinary service celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2015, having long played a significant role in protecting the UK against disease threats and having been established precisely for that purpose. However, the celebrations appeared somewhat muted, perhaps reflecting continuing concern about the consequences of cuts to the service over the past five years and the prospect of more cuts to come. Defra's budget was reduced by 30 per cent between 2011 and 2015 and, following the election of a new Government in May, it was widely anticipated that cuts of a similar magnitude would be imposed again. In the event, following the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, it looks as if the cuts to Defra's budget (15 per cent over the next five years) might not be as deep as everyone expected. Even so, they are not insignificant and, given the breadth of the department's activities, concern must remain about where the axe will fall.

In the companion animal field, both Scotland and Wales decided to require all dogs to be identified by microchip from April 2016. With England having already decided to require all dogs to be microchipped from next April, and with microchipping having been a requirement in Northern Ireland since April 2012, this means that all dogs in the UK will have to be identified by microchip from April next year.

Concern continued to be expressed about illegal trade in puppies following changes to the European pet travel rules in 2012, as well as about sales of puppies via the internet and the activities of unscrupulous breeders. The EU Dog & Cat Alliance, an alliance made up of animal welfare charities and other organisations, including the BVA, called during the year for more harmonisation of dog identification and breeding rules across the EU.

Following a three-year assessment, the EU-funded Callisto project drew attention to some of the zoonotic disease risks associated with companion animals and concluded that these needed to be communicated to pet owners in a balanced way. In the UK, surveys undertaken for the PDSA's annual PAW report on animal wellbeing indicated that the number of pet owners who were familiar with the Animal Welfare Acts was at an all time low.

As debate continued about how far vets should go in treating animals, insurance company RSA announced that, in view of rising treatment costs, it planned to set up a network of preferred specialist and referral practices, prompting concerns within the profession that this might limit the options available to referring veterinary surgeons as well as client choice.

The new Royal Charter of the RCVS came into effect on February 17, 2015, having last been updated almost 50 years ago. Among other things, it clarifies the role of the RCVS and, in a year in which the British Veterinary Nursing Association celebrated its 50th anniversary, puts the regulation of veterinary nurses on a firmer footing. It recognises veterinary nursing as a profession and, in tandem with this, the RCVS, with the full support of the BVA, embarked on a campaign to get the title ‘veterinary nurse’ protected in law.

Having consulted on the matter at the beginning of the year, and after a large majority of respondents had expressed support for the proposal, the RCVS decided in March to allow veterinary surgeons to use the courtesy title ‘Dr’. In November, following a comprehensive review, the RCVS launched a new version of the voluntary Practice Standards Scheme.

The BVA was also active during the year, setting out a new strategic plan, embarking on a governance review, and producing a manifesto for animal health and welfare for the main political parties to consider in advance of the General Election. It also continued to campaign for an end to the slaughter of animals without prestunning. In March, following a parliamentary debate in which the Government made clear that it had no intention of banning religious slaughter, the Association indicated that, on animal welfare grounds it would be continuing its campaign and, in the meantime, would be pressing for clearer labelling of meat from animals that had been slaughtered without being stunned beforehand.

The report on the outcome of the first year of the RCVS/BVA Vet Futures project was launched at the London Vet Show in November and, in setting out a vision of where the profession wants to be in 15 years time, focused on six key areas: animal health and welfare; the role of the veterinary profession in society; the health and wellbeing of veterinary professionals; veterinary career opportunities; veterinary business models and provision of services; and veterinary leadership. As well as making recommendations, the report discusses the thinking behind them and a result of this is that, as well as providing a vision for the future, it also provides some interesting insights into challenges currently facing the profession and how it sees itself now. Overall, one is left with the impression of a profession that is not entirely comfortable with the situation in which it finds itself, and the next step will be to take the recommendations forward.

Matters discussed in the report include career progression in practice and reports from practice employers of difficulties in recruiting ‘experienced vets’. This is in contrast to the situation a couple of years ago, when, with the UK veterinary schools increasing their output, concern was being widely expressed within the profession about ‘overproduction’ of graduates. As recent correspondence in Veterinary Record has illustrated, there seems to be a mismatch here, and this needs to be investigated and addressed.

Concern about antimicrobial resistance was again much to the fore in a year which saw, among other things, WHO agreement on a new global action plan on resistance, new European Commission guidelines on the use of antimicrobials in veterinary medicine and, in the UK, a report from the O'Neill Commission on the use of antimicrobials in agriculture. Efforts continue to be made to reduce and restrict antimicrobial use in Europe but, as the WHO and other organisations have highlighted, antimicrobial resistance is very much a global problem, and needs to be tackled on a global basis.

A new RCVS Royal Charter came into effect in February, recognising veterinary nurses as a profession

As the General Election approached, a BVA manifesto drew politicians' attention to priority animal health and welfare issues

The result of a 12-month project, the Vet Futures report (www.vetfutures.org.uk) reflects current concerns and outlines a strategy for the future

Among other developments in 2015, the European Parliament and Council agreed a new animal health law, Scotland launched a new food standards agency and Northern Ireland achieved Officially Brucellosis-Free status.

As events continued to demonstrate, the world in which the veterinary profession operates is changing rapidly. This inevitably presents challenges. However, if the aims of the Vet Futures project are realised, 2015 may come to be remembered as the year in which the veterinary profession in the UK took full stock of its position and decided to take control of its future.

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