Robert Huey is the Chief Veterinary Officer for Northern Ireland. Here, he describes a week in October.
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I don't like Mondays – not for the reasons given by the Boomtown Rats in 1979, but because of the traffic. I chose to live 58 miles from work, so if I'm out of the house by 6.30 am, I will be at my desk before 8.30 am, which is about as depressing as my music references being nearly 40 years old.
It will be no big surprise to anyone that the first issue on the desk of the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) for Northern Ireland on a Monday morning is bovine tuberculosis (bTB). My minister formed an independent group to consider a new way forward for the control of bTB in Northern Ireland almost two years ago and it's about to deliver its report. The group has put in a lot of work, taken evidence from authorities worldwide and the last step is to have the work peer-reviewed. The most difficult task has proved to be the last – the consideration by economists to support a business plan for the implementation of the proposed programme. It is a salutary lesson, but a fact, that for all the millions of pounds spent on research into bTB worldwide there is still so much we don't know.
To continue the financial theme, next up is chairing my group's monitoring panel. Government financial planning is carried out at what is known as the monitoring rounds in June, October and January, which are opportunities for departments to adjust their budgets. Of course, in order to confuse, June monitoring actually happens in April, just after the department has received its allocation; October happens in August and January takes place in October. I'm glad that's clear. The next couple of hours consist of individual managers making their case for additional resource while I try to decide whether we need more money, a pressure requiring a bid to departmental finance, or whether we have resource we can give up – an easement. By good luck and judgement we find we can break even (with the exception of the bTB compensation budget for which we never have enough – hence the need for a new approach to eradication of the disease).
There are 60 or so e-mails that need to be read and actioned, usually by my passing them on to someone else. For this job you need good ‘someone elses’ and I have a lot of them.
Monday afternoon is always the department's ‘Top Management Team’ meeting chaired by the permanent secretary and including my grade 3 colleagues, the finance director, the HR director and others from the private office and the press office. This is where the nuts and bolts of running the department and supporting the minister happens, with details of the minister's diary and briefings being considered alongside day-to-day matters. The meeting goes on for as long as it takes, usually well after 5 pm.
Once a month, the four CVOs hold a teleconference or face-to-face meeting. Nigel Gibbens, Christianne Glossop, Sheila Voas and myself are joined by colleagues from the Food Standards Agency and APHA. In addition to receiving updates on each of our priorities, we consider risks to animal health brought to us by the Risk Review Group as well as international animal health. This is usually one of the most useful and informative meetings of the month.
Among my e-mails is one from BVA asking for assistance in organising its Northern Ireland dinner later in the month, as well as the most recent version of the NI Programme for Government – 170 pages to be scanned and commented on. Next up, a meeting between my minister and minister of state George Eustice (who is in NI to discuss Brexit), at which I give advice on trade and animal health issues.
By now it's time for a North of Ireland Veterinary Association council meeting, which I attend as an ex-officio member. Discussions include Brexit and the new contract by which practitioners deliver bTB testing services to government. By 10 pm I'm ready to go home, and leave, although the meeting goes on for another hour.
I help my wife with the horses as my first meeting isn't until 10 am. Again, it's with the two ministers, but this time it's also with representatives of feed, food and fishing industries. Back at my desk there are more e-mails to deal with and more meetings on Brexit and bTB, and another with my veterinary project manager who is helping me – and the industry – develop an equine strategy for Northern Ireland. Then it's home to find a dead ewe.
Thursday to Sunday
I drop the dead sheep off at the AFBI (Agri-food and Biosciences Institute) laboratory on way to work. I – that is, my sheep – have a liver fluke problem. With them having been dosed two weeks ago, I hope this is the end of the problem. Coincidentally, my first meeting is about AFBI costs: how to do more with less, ensure that we are joined up and do our part for UK surveillance of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). I meet with a couple of farmers' groups and the permanent secretary. Topics range from support for farmers, fair pricing and, inevitably, bTB. More e-mails keep me busy until my flight to Birmingham for the BCVA conference at Hinckley. I arrive at about 8.30 pm; I decide to give the party games a miss and have fish and chips in the bar watching Manchester United beat Fenerbahçe on TV.
BCVA runs a great conference. Everyone I want to talk to is there and the CPD is of consistently high quality. Particularly good for me are the sessions on bluetongue vaccination and AMR, but I also dipped into the economics of beef cattle production.
The gala dinner on the Friday night involves audience participation with a notable effort from the CVO for Wales, in the form of a rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody – you had to be there – and it rounded off a busy week.