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ONE of the most extraordinary things about the EU referendum is that nobody seems to have prepared for the outcome. In the absence of a plan, we are left with the Government and other organisations doing their best to provide reassurance and ministers running round crying ‘Don't panic’ in a manner reminiscent of Corporal Jones in the 1970s television series Dad's Army. With the Prime Minister having announced his resignation, the Conservatives plotting to find a successor and Labour apparently in the process of tearing itself apart, the only thing that is missing is a Captain Mainwaring who might lead us all to a brighter future. The vacuum at the centre of government was illustrated this week by the fact that, by the time Veterinary Record went to press on Wednesday, several government departments, including Defra, had still not got round to saying anything about the result on their websites, despite having had plenty of time to think about the consequences of a leave vote during the four weeks of Civil Service ‘purdah’ that preceded the referendum.
From a veterinary professional perspective, the BVA discussed some of the issues that might need to be considered in the event of a British withdrawal from the EU in a briefing document produced in May. Matters discussed included workforce issues and freedom of movement, funding for disease surveillance, disease eradication and research, veterinary medicines, farming and trade, and legislation on animal health and welfare and public health (VR, May 21, 2016, vol 178, p 519). On June 24, the day after the vote, the BVA issued a statement noting that the decision to leave the EU would have a significant impact on matters of interest to the profession, and that the Association would work hard to ensure that ‘the voice of the veterinary profession is heard during the negotiations and discussions that will now begin, in order to secure the best possible outcomes for our profession and for animal health and welfare in the UK’. It said, too, that the BVA would retain ‘an outward looking and inclusive perspective’ through its relationships with international partners ‘to ensure that the UK veterinary profession continues to influence and engage on cross-border issues such as disease surveillance, veterinary medicines and antimicrobial resistance’ (see p 3 of this issue).
The RCVS was equally quick to respond to the referendum result, noting that it was still too early to say how the vote would affect current arrangements such as the Mutual Recognition of Professional Qualifications Directive, which allows European vets to practise in the UK and vice versa, but that it would be working to minimise any disruption from the transition process. ‘As always, we will work to maintain and increase the UK's high standards of veterinary care and animal welfare,’ it said.
Discussing the possible implications of a Brexit vote on the mutual recognition of qualifications in a letter published in Veterinary Record in April, the RCVS pointed out that there was no clear answer, as much would depend on the Government's position and the outcome of negotiations. It suggested that in the short term it was unlikely that existing RCVS registrants from other EU countries would have their registration revoked, but that future applicants might be affected (VR, April 9, 2016, vol 178, p 377). In a letter in this week's Veterinary Record, the RCVS says that vets and veterinary nurses already on the RCVS Register will be allowed to remain on the Register after Britain's exit from the EU, but that their ability to continue to practise in the UK will depend on the working regulations that are agreed by the Government during future negotiations. It says that it will be ‘making those in power aware of the vital contribution that overseas registrants make to the veterinary profession in the UK’ (see p 21).
It is indeed too early to say how a British withdrawal from the EU will affect veterinarians and veterinary activity. With the Conservative and Labour parties both distracted by internal wrangling, and the position the rest of the EU will take still far from certain, the situation is unlikely to become clearer any time soon. For the time being, the only practical response would seem to be to carry on with business as usual, with the important proviso that it won't be business as usual forever, or perhaps even for very much longer, and living with the uncertainty that this entails.
In the meantime, many of the issues raised before the referendum remain valid. With so much UK legislation relating to food safety and animal health and welfare being tied up in EU legislation, how much scope will there be to change things, assuming that Britain still wants to trade in Europe and that, if it does, it will have to meet EU rules? On veterinary medicines, how much scope will there be for the UK to apply its own rules given that most medicines these days are developed for international markets? To what extent will the Government commit to funding the UK's bovine TB eradication programme, bearing in mind that about half of the funding currently comes from the EU?
Exit from the EU could provide an opportunity to tighten the rules on pet travel, but is that likely to be a priority for the Government, and is the public likely to welcome any changes having got used to the arrangements as they stand?
As far as universities are concerned, Universities UK campaigned against a Brexit before the referendum and has since said that the decision to leave the EU will create significant challenges for the sector. Its misgivings are unlikely to be allayed by a statement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills this week. This indicated that there will be no immediate changes while the UK remains an EU member but that many of the questions concerning the sector will need to be considered as part of wider discussions about the UK's future relationship with the EU. The Royal Society noted last week that EU funding provides ‘an essential supplement’ to UK research funds and that it will be important to ensure that the overall level of funding is maintained. It also pointed out that many global challenges can only be tackled by countries working together and that negotiations on a new relationship with the EU should not result in any barriers that might inhibit collaborations.
Clearly, there are many more questions than answers at present and, as it seeks to influence developments, the veterinary profession, like everyone else, will have to set priorities for what it hopes to achieve. It might help if there were some sense of direction in government, but just at the moment that seems to be lacking.