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No-deal Brexit – the UK is not ready
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  1. Adele Waters

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In this week’s journal we wrap up our assessment of the UK’s preparedness for a no-deal Brexit in terms of its impact on veterinary practice as well as animal health and welfare.

In last week’s issue we rated preparedness in some key areas using a traffic light system and this week we complete that task. Boris Johnson’s government gets an overall rating of red – the UK is not ready.

The key areas and their ratings last week were: UK-EU trade (amber), medicines (amber) and the Irish border (red). This week we examine workforce (red), animal welfare (amber), research and education (amber) and animal travel (amber).

You might think that simple maths should provide an overall amber score. But there is good reason why we have pushed that to red.

The UK is short of vets now – that’s why the Migration Advisory Committee decided to add the profession to the Shortage Occupation List this month – and there are fears that after a no-deal Brexit the situation could get worse.

There are no signs of things getting better – we spoke to vet recruiters this week who reported no rush from Australiasian or US vets wanting to come to the UK to work. And while there may be interest from overseas vets, such as those from India, there has been no serious programme of work to support these vets to get registered.

The EU doesn’t offer a solution either. RCVS figures show a slight rise in the number of non-UK EU vets both joining and leaving the register since 2017.

And while allowing vet nurses to take on some of vets’ traditional work offers a very real solution, we are years away from that being legitimised.

It wasn’t like the government wasn’t warned – the BVA has been issuing alerts about workforce for years. There is even a special committee, which Defra sits on, to keep abreast of this very issue: the Veterinary Capability and Capacity Project.

The biggest concern remains the public health sector, where the UK is so dependent on foreign veterinary labour – around 95 per cent of official veterinarians (OVs) working in abattoirs are from overseas, with most coming from Europe. With the prospect of huge disruption to our trading transactions and a requirement for more checks – Defra has anticipated that the volume of certification work could rise by as much as 250 per cent – there are no official targets set for how many OVs we actually need. The current estimate is that we need an extra 50 full time vets at least; we have an extra 400+ vets trained to take on extra OV work. Good enough? No idea.

As our no-deal Brexit package reveals, there are also other matters apart from workforce where the UK is not prepared.

Our assessment is not scientific and, of course, Brexit is a shifting situation but we’ve gathered intelligence and given ratings according to progress to date and outstanding questions – it is a barometer for how confident we can be in the UK coping if it doesn’t strike a deal with the EU.

No one would suggest civil servants aren’t working hard to get the UK ready for Brexit – Defra is one of the most affected government departments, responsible for some 55 of the 319 EU-related work streams across government.

It has met some significant goals, for example putting in place a new customs tracking system – the Import of Products, Animals, Food and Feed System – and securing listed status so that live animal exports can continue in a no-deal scenario.

Last September the National Audit Office warned Defra wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the first Brexit deadline and, with days to go before the second one, it appears it hasn’t quite got us to ‘no-deal ready’.

The lack of preparedness is not good enough

It doesn’t matter what side of the Brexit debate you are on, this lack of preparedness is not good enough. No modern industrialised economy has ever tried to do anything like Brexit and the stakes are too high not to be fully prepared for the worst-case scenario.

If Johnson’s cabinet is, or ever was, genuine about its threat to take the UK out of the EU within days, then it surely needs the UK to be business ready. No ifs and no buts. Anything shy of that is a gamble with people’s livelihoods, our economy and established way of life.

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