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Full English or continental? Brexit and other developments in 2016

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BREXIT: no one seems to have used the term until 2012, but by the end of June 2016 it was the most searched for word in online dictionaries worldwide. The vote to leave the EU in the UK's referendum on EU membership on June 23 took many by surprise, not least the UK Government which, it soon became clear, had made no preparations for that outcome. It certainly brought the word Brexit to the fore, but it remains worrying that, six months later, no one, including the Government, seems to have any clear idea about what Brexit will mean. The debate, if you can call it that, continues, although largely behind closed doors, and whether we will end up with a full English Brexit or a more continental version remains to be seen.

Vets, along with everyone else, will be affected by Brexit, but because of the wide range of roles they fulfil in relation to animal health and welfare and public health, and because much of this activity is governed by EU legislation, they could be affected more than most. Much will depend on how the negotiations are handled. However, the decision to leave will inevitably have an impact on many aspects of veterinary endeavour, whether in relation to farm and companion animal health and welfare, disease surveillance, food safety and public health, or veterinary education and research. It could also have implications for the availability of veterinary medicines and the position of EU agencies and disease reference laboratories currently located in the UK.

In July, the BVA, having drawn attention to some of these issues before the referendum, announced that it was setting up a working group to help identify the profession's priorities during Brexit while the RCVS, for its part, announced that it had established a Brexit task force. The two professional bodies must liaise closely with each other, as well as with other groups whose interests coincide, in trying to establish what the profession hopes to achieve. If one thing has become clear over the past few months it is that the veterinary sector is by no means the only sector with an interest in the eventual outcome, and it must act as one if its voice is to be heard.

Of immediate concern is the status of non-British EU vets currently working in the UK, and of British vets currently working elsewhere in the EU. In October, the presidents of the RCVS and the BVA wrote to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, drawing attention to the significant contribution of non-British EU vets to veterinary activity in the UK. The two organisations called on the Government to protect the status of non-British EU vets currently working and studying in the UK, and urged ministers ‘to be mindful of the consequences of what might be perceived as antiforeigner rhetoric’. So far, while acknowledging the ‘vital work’ of UK and EU vets, the Government has failed to provide the guarantees requested. Instead, it argues, the working rights of UK-based EU vets can only be protected if reciprocal agreements can be guaranteed for British citizens living in EU member states.

Concern has also been expressed about whether Defra, which has many different responsibilities and has suffered significant cuts to its budget in recent years, is well placed to get the best out of Brexit. Such concerns are likely to have been only partially allayed in October when Andrea Leadsom, who campaigned to leave the EU and was appointed Secretary of State at Defra in July, told a parliamentary select committee that ‘my department is motoring; it is really getting on with the job’.

It is not clear to what extent EU rules will continue to apply in the UK when it leaves the EU. However, assuming that Britain still wants to trade with the rest of Europe, and given the extent to which UK and EU legislation are intertwined, they will probably apply for some time yet. This is likely to be true for legislation on veterinary medicines that is still being developed in Brussels, food safety legislation and a new European Regulation on Transmissible Animal Diseases (formerly known as the ‘animal health law’) which, after several years in development, was finally adopted by the European Parliament in March. Based on the principle that prevention is better than cure, the new legislation provides the legal framework for the EU Animal Health Strategy that was agreed across Europe back in 2007. The strategy had itself been prompted by concern to find a better a way of doing things after the experiences of BSE in the 1990s and foot-and-mouth disease in 2001. Apparently there's a two-year timetable for negotiations on the terms of Brexit, but no one could pretend that the European legislative process moves quickly.

A preventative approach to animal disease was much in evidence in the UK in February, when, on the basis of meteorological modelling and in view of concerns about a re-emergence of bluetongue serotype 8 virus in central France, Defra warned of an increased risk of the disease being introduced to the UK later in the year as a result of infected midges being blown over from France on the wind. At the time, there was concern that insufficient vaccine would be available to help prevent and control an outbreak if one occurred; however, industry responded and by July it was announced that stocks were available to allow farmers to vaccinate their cattle and sheep. Vigilance was maintained throughout the year but no outbreaks seem to have occurred and by the middle of November Defra reported that, with the onset of lower temperatures and a predominantly north-westerly wind, the immediate threat had receded.

There has been no such respite in the case of avian influenza, as illustrated by news last week of an outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N8 avian influenza in turkeys on a farm in Lincolnshire (see p 638 of this issue). This follows warnings of an increased risk of disease following outbreaks in continental Europe, and the application of avian influenza prevention zones across Great Britain. The outbreak provides a timely, if unfortunate, reminder that disease is no respecter of national borders, and of why an international approach to prevention and control is so necessary. It also illustrates the importance of biosecurity, and of always being on the lookout for disease.

November 2016 marked the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act, providing an opportunity to assess how effective it has been in preventing animal suffering. The Act imposed a duty of care on companion animal owners to ensure that the needs of their animals are met, and made it an offence not to provide for those needs. To be effective, the Animal Welfare Act, like any other legislation, needs to be widely understood, fully implemented and properly enforced, and concerns remain in each of these areas. A survey undertaken by the PDSA for its annual report on pet animal wellbeing in 2016 indicated that, 10 years on, only about a third of companion animal owners were aware of the Act or their pets’ animal welfare needs. Regarding implementation, the Animal Welfare Act is primarily an enabling act, implementation of which depends on developing secondary legislation and appropriate codes of practice. Progress here has been slow, as illustrated, perhaps, by the fact that Defra only started consulting on proposals to update the rules on dog breeding and other animal-related businesses at the end of last year, nearly 10 years after the Act was introduced. As far as enforcement is concerned, concern remains about who, exactly, is responsible for enforcing the Act, and about the ability of local authorities to fulfil their enforcement role effectively at a time when they are financially hard-pressed. Defra's plans to update the rules on dog breeding and animal establishments licensing represent a rare opportunity to improve regulation in this area but, as the BVA warned when responding to Defra's consultation in March, it is important that the changes are not used as a cost-cutting exercise.

Defra also consulted on the pet travel rules in 2016, although somewhat bizarrely, given all the excitement about Brexit, it only asked for comments on how well EU rules are being implemented in Britain, not on the rules themselves. Responding to the consultation in October, the BVA nevertheless called for the reintroduction of the requirement for dogs to be treated against ticks before entering the UK, while also highlighting concerns that the rules are being exploited by unscrupulous breeders bringing dogs into the UK illegally for sale. Concerns about the scale and nature of the European dog trade are not confined to the UK, as illustrated by a position paper adopted by the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe in November.

The BVA's call for the reintroduction of compulsory tick treatment was pertinent following reports earlier in the year about a cluster of cases of canine babesiosis in dogs in Harlow in Essex, none of which had travelled abroad. Following an initial alert from a practitioner in a letter in Veterinary Record, it became clear over the next few weeks that the causative organism, Babesia canis, was circulating among ticks in a local uncultivated park area (VR, March 26, 2016, vol 178, p 302).

In February, the BVA launched a long-term animal welfare strategy. Called ‘Vets speaking up for animal welfare’, it sets out a framework for achieving progress on animal welfare in line with society's changing expectations, and reflects a desire within the profession to be more proactive in this area. Throughout the year, the BVA continued to campaign for all food animals to be stunned before slaughter. Meanwhile, in August, it called for revision of breed standards for brachycephalic dogs, reflecting growing concern about the breathing and other health problems experienced by these dogs, which have become very fashionable. In October, following a public consultation exercise, the Scottish Government announced that it intended to exempt certain working dogs from the ban on non-therapeutic tail docking that has applied to all dogs in Scotland since 2006. This brings the situation in Scotland more into line with that in England and Wales but, in animal welfare terms, has to be regarded as a retrograde step.

Regulations requiring dogs in England, Scotland and Wales to be identified by microchip came into force on April 6. With microchipping having been a requirement in Northern Ireland since 2012, this means that all dogs in the UK now have to be identified by microchip.

On the farm animal front, 2016 saw, among other things, the introduction of new livestock movement rules in England with a view to maintaining disease controls while also reducing ‘red tape’ for farmers. However, as for many years now, it was efforts to control bovine TB that again attracted most attention. In a tranche of documents issued at the end of 2015, Defra discussed a number of measures including proposals for compulsory postmovement testing of cattle and plans to amend the licensing requirements on badger culling to allow more flexibility in enabling culling in areas where it was likely to be effective. These measures were implemented during 2016 and, in another bundle of documents issued at the end of August, Defra proposed further controls on cattle while reporting that badger culling had been extended to seven new areas. Publishing more documents on its website last week, Defra announced that it intends to apply for Officially TB-Free status for the low risk area covering the north and north east of England in 2017, while also introducing proposals aimed at allowing badger culls to be continued in areas where an initial four-year cull has been completed successfully (see p 640 of this issue). Taken together, all of this indicates that the Government remains determined to press ahead with its strategy for eliminating bovine TB in England using all the tools at its disposal.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Assembly Government is seeking views on plans for a new regionalised approach to bovine TB in Wales, while the TB Strategic Partnership Group has just launched a long-term strategy for eradicating the disease in Northern Ireland (see p 640 of this issue). Scotland remains Officially Bovine TB-Free.

Concern about antimicrobial resistance was much to the fore in 2016, not least as a result of a review on meeting the threat posed by resistance by economist Jim O'Neill, which published its conclusions in May. The review had been commissioned by David Cameron in 2014, before the referendum on EU membership, when Mr Cameron was still Prime Minister. Lord O'Neill's report drew attention to the scale and global nature of antimicrobial resistance, and called for global action. It also called for the introduction of targets aimed at reducing antimicrobial use in livestock, a recommendation which, along with many others in the report, was enthusiastically embraced by the UK Government. At a G20 Summit held in Hangzhou, China, in September, world leaders agreed to take action on resistance. As is increasingly being recognised, this will require a One Health approach.

In April, the RCVS invited applications for fellowship of the RCVS under a new scheme which had been agreed in 2015. Forty-four candidates were successful and the new Fellowship, which also includes existing fellows, was formally launched in October: the aim is that it should develop as a learned body. Meanwhile, in a rare demonstration that, contrary to popular belief, turkeys can and sometimes do vote for Christmas, the Council of the RCVS decided in February to reduce the number of members on the Council from 42 to 25. With the size of the Council currently determined by Act of Parliament, Defra is currently in the process of developing a Legislative Reform Order with a view to making the planned reduction possible.

In July, the RCVS and the BVA launched a Vet Futures Action Plan, to take forward the recommendations made in the joint Vet Futures report which was published last November. Produced jointly by the two organisations after a year-long project involving wide consultation, the Vet Futures report sets out vision for the veterinary profession for 2030, along with six key ambitions (VR, November 21, 2015, vol 177, pp 502, 503-504). As part of the project, a VN Futures report was also published in July, setting out a vision for veterinary nursing. The Vet Futures and VN Futures projects seem particularly relevant in the light of the vote to leave the EU: with so much uncertainty about what happens next, and many competing interests involved, it becomes all the more important that the veterinary profession should have a clear vision for the future. Brexit is likely to prove disruptive and distracting over the next few years but, for all the political shenanigans, there is still a real job to do in terms of improving animal health, public health and animal welfare.

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