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A WELL-PLANNED dinner might seem a reasonable first step in attempting to achieve a divorce that is as pain-free as possible.
That may well have been prime minister Theresa May's intention when she hosted EU leaders last week, ahead of the start of formal Brexit negotiations.
On the table was something both sides want to sort as a first priority – rights for UK and EU workers to remain where they reside.
But, it would appear that cash – a possible e100 billion bill – got in the way.
The evening ended with mixed reviews, a rumour that EC President Jean-Claude Juncker thought Theresa May was ‘living in another galaxy’, and certainty that negotiations will get a lot tougher.
The thousands of non-UK EU vets working in the UK will be hoping that Theresa May isn't living in another galaxy and that they can have the option to secure their future here. There is certainly a business case for them to do so.
Non-UK EU vets have established themselves as a vital part of the UK's veterinary workforce. RCVS figures (2015) show that 20 per cent of the UK veterinary workforce is made up of vets who graduated at EU universities. In 2014, the proportion of new registrants in that year from non-UK EU vet schools was 43 per cent (RCVS 2014).
Those sorts of proportions mean that UK veterinary practice is heavily reliant on EU labour.
Public health veterinary services are overwhelmingly dependent, for example, with some estimates pointing to 95 per cent of all veterinary posts in the meat hygiene sector being held by overseas graduates.
The Major Employers Group, a body that represents large veterinary practices and corporate groups, estimates that 30 per cent of their combined workforces are non-UK EU graduates. Significantly, these veterinary professionals are more likely than their UK colleagues to work full time so, if anything, their contribution is higher than figures suggest.
EU nationals are also said to make up 22 per cent of all vets working in UK academia, vital to training the vets of the future.
The BVA has been busy driving the message that the UK needs EU vets to the heart of government since before the EU referendum in June last year.
Following the vote, it established a working group to identify the key issues for the profession arising from Brexit and moved quickly to identify some Brexit principles to inform a programme of more detailed work.
This week it publishes the results of that work with a 45-page report ‘Brexit and the Veterinary Profession’ and some 52 recommendations for the government when negotiating a Brexit deal.
The first seven focus on the veterinary workforce. First, it recommends the UK government should guarantee working rights for non-British EU vets and veterinary nurses currently working and studying in the UK, at the existing level and with no time limit.
Secondly, the BVA wants to see vets added to the Shortage Occupation List.
Recruitment and retention difficulties that have beset the profession for many years have now taken root and are getting worse. There are simply not enough vets to fill available posts.
In 2015 a BVA survey found 40 per cent of practices with vacancies took more than three months to recruit or had withdrawn a vacancy due to a lack of suitable candidates within the last 12 months.
In November 2016, another survey found a fifth of members said it had become even harder to recruit since the referendum.
The challenge in the public health sector is particularly acute. According to the Veterinary Public Health Association, meat hygiene sector employers have seen a significant decrease in applications for veterinary roles since the referendum.
Indications are that the BVA is knocking on an open door when it comes to arguments about retaining valuable EU workers. In January the prime minister set out the 12 principles that will guide the government through Brexit talks. Securing the rights of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU is one of them.
Not only that, the government is so keen that it would like to secure these rights ahead of formal Brexit negotiations, expected to begin in earnest this summer, following our own general election, but also that of Germany and France.
However, the stumbling block is reciprocity – the government wants a reciprocal arrangement and Theresa May has been consistent on that message since her first statements on Brexit.
For veterinary businesses across the UK, their very real delivery problems seem a world apart from these top-level Brexit negotiations that will no doubt serve up more arguments and back-biting over the next two years – the time the British government has to negotiate an exit deal.
For non-UK EU vets working in practices, hospitals, charities, farming, meat production, in academia, surveillance, research and industry, it is business as usual. While their right to remain officially hangs in the balance, they have to carry on regardless.
Our interviews with some of them (see pp 434-435) paint a picture of a resilient and pragmatic group of workers. They know their value and ‘feel’ the UK's need for professionals like them. They believe that pragmatism will win out and they will be allowed to stay.
People like David Vasiloiu, a farm and poultry vet in Hereford. He says ‘We are paying our taxes and contributing to the agricultural system. It's a win-win.’
Or Francesco Cian, a veterinary clinical pathologist, from Warwick, who says ‘I'm not planning to go anywhere unless they kick me out.’
Final thought. Vets contribute to the UK economy substantially. Two animal industries (UK livestock and horse industries) generate £21 billion per year and vets are central to both.
Failure to secure the future of EU veterinary professionals would cause wholesale disruption of veterinary services across the UK and associated damage to British business-as-usual and, therefore, the UK PLC brand.
Pound signs alone make the case for non-UK EU vets to stay.
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