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THE uncertainty following the Brexit vote makes it all the more important that the veterinary profession is clear about what it hopes to see achieved in the forthcoming negotiations, that it sets priorities and lobbies accordingly. Clearly, it will be by no means the only group that will be thinking along these lines and, amid the general clamour, it will be important to make sure that the veterinary voice is heard. In this context, and with so much currently up in the air, an item on the agenda for a meeting of the BVA's Council next week is highly pertinent. The Association is setting up a working group to consider the impact of Brexit on the veterinary profession and, at the meeting, Council members will be asked to discuss and identify relevant issues for the working group to consider.
Everyone in the UK will be affected by the outcome of the referendum, but some of the effects will be quite specific to the profession, both because of its responsibilities for animal health and welfare and because of the wide range of activities in which it is involved. Some of the issues that need to be considered were discussed in a document produced by the BVA before the referendum.1 They include legislation on animal health and welfare, funding for disease surveillance and disease eradication, and legislation relating to official controls and food safety. With nearly half of the veterinary surgeons registered in the UK in recent years having qualified elsewhere in the EU, and an apparent shortage of ‘experienced vets’, it will be important to consider the effects of any restrictions on freedom of movement on the veterinary workforce. Equally, as a science- and knowledge-based profession, it will be important to consider the impact of Brexit on universities and research. Thought must also be given to how to ensure that a full range of effective veterinary medicines remains available in the UK, given the cost of developing and obtaining marketing authorisations for new products, and the European licensing arrangements that apply. The European Medicines Agency is based in London, and both this and the UK's Veterinary Medicines Directorate seem likely to be affected.
With so many important issues to consider, deciding on the priorities will not be easy, and the problem is likely to be compounded by the fact that, with so much else on its plate, the Government is unlikely to put the specific concerns of the veterinary profession top of its list. This does not mean that those concerns should not be brought to its attention and, as highlighted by the BVA President, Sean Wensley, in a letter to ministers earlier this month, putting an end to the uncertainty surrounding the position of the many EU veterinarians already working in the UK, whether in practice, universities or the public health sector, would be a good place to start. Workforce issues aside, international collaboration has always been an essential element of veterinary endeavour, and it is vital that this continues.
It will be important, too, to ensure that the structures and funding necessary for effective disease surveillance are maintained and strengthened, along with arrangements for dealing with disease outbreaks when they occur. The Government shouldn't need reminding of the economic and other consequences of BSE in the 1990s and foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, but memories fade and now might be a good time to do so.
Much of the legislation in the UK relating to animal health and welfare, food safety and disease control is based on European legislation, largely because of the importance attached to agriculture when the EU was founded and recognition of the need to be able to trade animals and their products safely in the single market. Many of the European rules will continue to apply after Brexit, albeit that the UK will probably have less influence on what those rules are. Even so, the process of recasting and perhaps amending the legislation in terms specific to the UK will be a considerable task, which is likely to keep administrators in Defra fully occupied for some time to come. This, and the effort that will have to be devoted to negotiating the terms of Britain's exit, must not be allowed to prevent more tangible forms of progress being made.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has been quick to set up an inquiry to examine the implications of leaving the EU for science and research, and is already taking evidence. Most scientists were firmly on the remain side of the referendum debate, and concerns expressed during the debate by organisations such as Universities UK and the Royal Society are unlikely to have been allayed by a statement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills soon after the vote that there will be no immediate changes while the UK remains an EU member. There are reports that, in view of the uncertainty, EU scientists are reconsidering job offers in the UK or having second thoughts about including British colleagues on EU collaborative grant applications. Science is international, and such collaborations need to be maintained.
The veterinary profession will not be alone in pressing for a satisfactory output from the Brexit negotiations and, as the BVA working group seeks to identify issues and help set priorities, it would make sense to focus on areas that might be neglected by others and on which it can provide unique insights. There is a degree of urgency about all this and, in the short term at least, it may be necessary to distinguish between what might be desirable in terms of safeguarding animal health and welfare and what is absolutely essential. In the meantime, the RCVS has set up a Brexit task force, and the BVA working group and the RCVS intend to liaise closely to coordinate their activities and minimise duplication of effort. It is important that they do this, and that they also liaise with other interested groups. A precedent has been set with the Vet Futures project, but, on this issue in particular, it is vital that the veterinary profession acts together.