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Being heard on Brexit

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DEBATES at the BVA Congress at the London Vet Show last week provided much food for thought, covering topics such as farm and companion animal welfare, antimicrobial resistance and building professional resilience. However, for all the subjects discussed and issues raised, an early morning debate on the veterinary implications of Brexit was probably the most thought-provoking. This was largely inevitable, and not just because the subject is topical and because the Government, along with everyone else, is struggling to work out what Britain's withdrawal from the EU will actually mean. It also reflects the fact that, with Britain having been part of the EU for more than 40 years, activity in most of the areas of interest to the veterinary profession is so tangled up with EU membership that leaving the EU will have implications across all of them.

As the debate heard, Brexit is likely to have an impact in many areas, affecting activities such as disease surveillance, efforts to safeguard animal health and welfare, food safety and public health, and meeting international standards for trade. With half of the veterinary surgeons registering in the UK in recent years having qualified elsewhere, maintaining the workforce is likely to be an issue, with implications for private practice, academia and research. With about 90 per cent of vets currently working in meat hygiene or public health having qualified outside the UK, there are particular concerns in this sector. Access to veterinary medicines could be affected and, the debate heard, there could also be implications for EU reference laboratories currently located in the UK.

Both the BVA and the RCVS have set up working groups to address such issues and, as Alick Simmons, chair of the BVA's working group, pointed out during the debate, there is a need to identify the threats and opportunities presented by the prospect of Brexit, and to clarify the veterinary profession's priorities for the short, medium and longer term (see pp 531-533 of this issue and VR, November 12, 2016, vol 179, pp 493-494). Providing reassurance to non-UK EU graduates who are working or might be considering working in the UK remains an immediate priority, as the presidents of the RCVS and the BVA recently pointed out in a letter to the Prime Minister (VR, October 22, 2016, vol 179, p 393).

Against this background, and amid all the uncertainty, there is clearly a need to identify and set priorities. However, the veterinary profession is by no means the only group engaged in this exercise, and others, including the Government, will have priorities of their own. Despite the significance of its role in relation to animal health, public health and trade, the veterinary profession is relatively small, and it is by no means certain that its voice will be heard, and views taken into account, in the general clamour for attention. A report published by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) this week1 discussing the implications of Brexit for science and research perhaps gives an indication of the nature of the challenge ahead.

The STC was quick to set up an inquiry into the implications for science following the vote to leave the EU on June 23 and, given the importance of science and research to veterinary endeavour, some of the recommendations in its report, if acted upon, could be helpful to the veterinary profession itself. Not least among these is one that the UK should continue to be a place where scientists from around the world feel welcome to come and work. However, one of the most striking aspects of the select committee's report is that it expresses concern that the needs of science might not be at the heart of thinking and planning for Brexit in the Government's Department for Exiting the European Union, and that science needs to have a strong voice as part of the negotiations.

Science is a big enterprise; so big, in fact, that it has its own select committees in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. If the select committee is concerned that the interests of science might not be sufficiently represented in the Brexit negotiations, where might that leave the specific interests of the veterinary profession?

The STC's report serves to emphasise that the veterinary profession needs to be clear about what it hopes to achieve when setting priorities for Brexit, and that it must act as one. Wherever possible, it also needs to work with other groups where interests overlap.

Brexit was by no means the only subject discussed at the BVA Congress, and reports of other debates will be published in Veterinary Record over the next few weeks. However, the issues it raises are of immediate concern. As Dr Simmons remarked during the congress debate, there are opportunities in Brexit if Britain gets it right. If it gets it wrong, it risks becoming parochial and isolationist – a ‘bit player’ on the international stage.

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