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2019: a veterinary year in review
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From an EU exit that didn’t happen, to positive moves for animal welfare, 2019 certainly kept the news pages of Vet Record full. In this round up, Kathryn Clark looks back

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For something that didn’t actually happen in 2019 (although not for want of trying), Brexit dominated UK debate – political, professional and public – throughout the year. With parliament repeatedly rejecting proposed withdrawal agreements, concerns escalated about the possible negative consequences of a no-deal Brexit.

As each Brexit deadline approached, preparations for a no-deal ramped up, particularly those for ensuring the supply of veterinary medicines. In February, amid reports that animal health companies were considering stockpiling medicines, the National Office of Animal Health reassured vets that there had been ‘comprehensive planning’ to safeguard medicines’ supply should no agreement be reached. In July, the government announced plans to secure freight capacity to bring veterinary medicines and other ‘critical’ goods into the UK from continental Europe in the event of a no-deal. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate said several times in 2019 that it was prepared for Brexit, with contingency measures in place to maintain medicines’ supply.

The prospect of a no-deal Brexit brought anxiety

Although these reassurances may have helped allay fears around medicines’ supply, the prospect of a no-deal brought anxiety in other areas. Concern about the possible impact on farming was raised by farmers’ organisations on multiple occasions and, to ensure that exports of live animals and products of animal origin could continue in the event of a no-deal, the EU granted the UK ‘listed status’ in April and again in October. Listed status also meant it would be possible to move equids between the UK and EU. However, when it came to small animals, vets were encouraged to talk to their clients about the extra measures needed should they want to travel abroad with their pets.

The BVA took its own stance on a no-deal in September when, following a detailed analysis of the likely impact in a number of areas, the association called for the no-deal option to be taken off the table in the government’s Brexit negotiations.

In October, this journal assessed the UK’s level of preparedness for a no-deal Brexit in the key areas of trade, medicines, the Irish border, workforce, animal welfare, research and education, and animal travel, and concluded that the UK was not ready.

However, one positive to emerge from the debate on Brexit was greater recognition by government of the importance of vets to the UK. In February, Defra minister David Rutley commented that vets’ work was ‘more important than ever’. Despite this acknowledgement, concerns remained about the supply of vets to the UK workforce, particularly for public health roles. To this end, news that, in May, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) had recommended vets be returned to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) was particularly welcome, and the subsequent decision by the Home Office in July to accept the MAC’s recommendation was greeted by the BVA as ‘a resounding vote of confidence in the veterinary community’.

The protracted deadlock over Brexit was finally broken in December when a withdrawal agreement passed through parliament; 31 January 2020 will mark the end of the first stage of the withdrawal process. Throughout 2019, fears were expressed about the potential downgrading of animal welfare standards to achieve post-Brexit trade deals – particularly with the USA – and, no doubt, these will re-emerge as the UK formally begins to negotiate its future trading relationship with the EU and other countries.

Animal welfare

There were, however, a number of positive domestic political developments in terms of animal welfare in 2019.

In May, a statutory instrument to ban third-party sales of puppies and kittens in England was laid before parliament; it received Royal Assent in July and the ban is due to take effect in April 2020. In February, the Welsh government consulted on its own proposals for a ban on commercial third-party sales of puppies and kittens, and in July announced that there had been ‘overwhelming’ public support for it.

In July, the Scottish government announced that it had received positive responses to a consultation on proposed new measures for licensing the breeding of dogs, cats and rabbits.

Meanwhile, legislation to increase the maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty in England and Wales from six months to five years was announced in June although it had not completed its passage through parliament before the parliamentary session came to an end in October. However, a pledge to introduce tougher sentences for animal cruelty was included in the Conservative Party’s manifesto for December’s general election, so this seems set to be achieved in due course.

The Scottish government also consulted on proposals to increase maximum penalties for animal cruelty, announcing in July that nearly all respondents agreed that maximum penalties should be strengthened.

In England, the government announced in January that it had commissioned research to examine the effectiveness of current dog control measures. The status of this research remained uncertain at the end of 2019, with the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (whose 2018 report on controlling dangerous dogs had prompted the research) writing to the government in November to find out when it planned to provide an update on progress.

However, in Scotland, in October, the Scottish government launched a review of dog control laws, consulting on practical measures that might be taken.

A further welfare success – although affecting only a few animals – came in April, with the introduction of a bill to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in England. The Wild Animals in Circuses Act received Royal Assent in July and the ban will come into force on 20 January. The BVA, which had long campaigned on this issue, welcomed the new legislation, saying that the ban was ‘emblematic of how we should be treating animals in the modern world’.

A statutory instrument to ban third-party sales of puppies and kittens in England was laid before parliament in May and received Royal Assent in July

Similar legislation is in the pipeline in Wales, with the Welsh government introducing a Wild Animals and Circuses (Wales) Bill in July. A ban is already in place in Scotland.

An issue that did not move forward in 2019 was that of animal sentience

An issue that did not move forward in 2019 was that of animal sentience. Despite assurances in April that the government was still ‘actively’ working to introduce legislation on animal sentience, this remained unresolved as 2019 drew to a close. Again, the Conservative Party pledged in its general election manifesto to bring in new laws on animal sentience, so there remains hope for progress in this area.

Also set to continue throughout 2020 is debate over non-stun slaughter. In 2019, the BVA kept up pressure on the government, writing to the (then) Defra secretary of state, Michael Gove, in February, calling for all animals to be stunned before slaughter. The BVA was also part of talks, chaired by Gove in May, which involved key stakeholders and were described as ‘constructive’ and ‘positive’. At that time, there appeared to be some suggestion of introducing a labelling system to indicate slaughter method, but in October Theresa Villiers, who took over from Gove as Defra secretary when Boris Johnson became prime minister, backtracked on plans for non-stun labelling.

In a Vet Record feature article published in January, three vets spoke up about the racism they had experienced in the course of their education and work

From a veterinary perspective, a significant policy published by the BVA in 2019 was its position on sustainable agriculture and in particular its call for a ‘less and better’ approach to the consumption of animal-derived products. It suggested that sustainable production and consumption could, together, have a positive impact on animal welfare, and help drive consumer demand for high animal welfare products.

Workforce

Last year saw a steady focus on expanding the UK veterinary workforce

Last year saw a steady focus on expanding the UK veterinary workforce with both homegrown and overseas talent.

In terms of UK-educated vets, the profession welcomed the first cohort of students to graduate from the UK’s newest vet school at the University of Surrey in July; later, in October, the school gained RCVS accreditation.

In March, Nottingham vet school announced that it would be doubling its vet student body by moving to two intakes per year. In May, Harper Adams University and Keele University invited the first applications for places at the new vet school (the ninth in the UK) they will be opening in September this year.

Thus vet student numbers are set to increase over the next few years.

The quality of veterinary education in the UK was underlined by results from the QS World University Rankings in February. This named the Royal Veterinary College as the world’s top vet school and three other UK schools (Cambridge, Edinburgh and Liverpool) in the top 10.

But the year also saw continued interest in boosting the UK workforce with already-trained vets from overseas. The return of vets to the SOL in July will make it easier for employers to recruit vets from outside of the EU. Also, the RCVS resumed discussions with vet schools and regulatory bodies in India about the possibility of accrediting Indian vet schools at some point in the future.

In May, the BVA unveiled its vision of a ‘vet-led team’, placing vets at the heart of a ‘hub and spoke’ model, surrounded by the allied professionals who support them.

However, some difficult workforce issues came to prominence in 2019, not least the issue of discrimination in the profession. In January, Vet Record featured three vets who had experienced racism in the course of their education and work. In the article, the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society warned that racist abuse was harming vets’ mental health and wellbeing, and highlighted reluctance among many vets to speak out.

The BVA sought to evaluate the extent of discrimination in more detail: the results of a BVA survey, which were released in July, revealed that 24 per cent of vet professionals had experienced or witnessed some form of discrimination in the workplace or in a learning environment. Some 44 per cent of these incidents related to sex discrimination, 27 per cent related to race and 14 per cent related to pregnancy or parental leave. Other examples included discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, sexual orientation and religion.

In August, Vet Record also highlighted discrimination against women in the profession with several female vets anonymously sharing their experiences of direct sex discrimination.

Regulation

From a regulatory perspective, perhaps the most significant announcement came in September when the RCVS announced a 12-month review of ‘under care’ and out-of-hours emergency cover. Prompted by continued debate around telemedicine, this review could have far-reaching consequences for how the veterinary workforce operates and how veterinary services may be delivered in future.

Exactly what tasks can be delegated to vet nurses under Schedule 3 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act has been a steady source of confusion for some time and 2019 saw that continue, with confusion evident in debate over whether nurses are allowed to squeeze dogs’ anal glands – they are.

The BVA and British Veterinary Nursing Association announced in November that they are creating a new taskforce to examine the role of vet nurses and develop a vision for their future. The taskforce aims to produce a position document on the future role and direction of veterinary nursing and to come up with a definition of veterinary nursing as, currently, one does not exist.

Animal health

From the animal health perspective, 2019 was bookended by influenza. Early in the year, equine influenza outbreaks were increasingly reported across Europe and in the UK, leading to a short suspension of horse racing at British racecourses in February. Cases continued to be reported (and not just in racehorses) as the year progressed and vets were urged to swab any horses with clinical signs and encourage equine clients to ensure that their animals were vaccinated or re-vaccinated. As the year drew to a close, the first case of avian influenza of the 2019 winter was reported in December on a commercial poultry premises in Suffolk, leading to the culling of 28,000 birds.

Throughout 2019, the threat of African swine fever hung over the UK pig industry

Throughout 2019, the threat of African swine fever (ASF) hung over the UK pig industry, with warnings that an outbreak could cost the UK economy £45 million in a ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’. In June, Defra stepped up efforts to protect the UK, launching a major poster campaign at airports, ports and train stations to warn international travellers of the risk of unintentionally bringing ASF to the UK in pork products. In July, ASF virus DNA was detected in samples of illegally imported pork products seized at an entry point into Northern Ireland.

The BVA unveiled its vision of a ‘vet-led team’, placing vets at the heart of a ‘hub and spoke’ model, surrounded by the allied professionals who support them

As well as moving westwards across Europe, ASF continued to spread in Asia in 2019. In June, there was concern that animal welfare was not being respected in China as the country struggled to cull huge numbers of affected pigs. In November, the World Organisation for Animal Health warned that the ASF epidemic was the biggest-ever threat to commercial piggeries and that about one-quarter of the world’s pigs could be expected to die as a direct or indirect result of the disease.

African swine fever continued to move westwards across Europe in 2019 and Defra stepped up efforts to protect the UK from the disease

Back in the UK, the announcement by Public Health England in October that tickborne encephalitis virus had been detected in ticks from Thetford Forest and the Hampshire/Dorset border marked the first occasion that this pathogen had been found in the UK. More unwelcome news came in April with the publication in this journal of a paper recording the confirmation of a case of leishmaniosis in a dog that had no history of travelling outside of the UK. It was believed that this dog caught the infection from another (imported) dog in its household – the first time this scenario had been reported in the UK.

Against this background of new disease threats, news emerged in September that there had been an ‘alarming’ drop in the levels of routine vaccination of pets, raising concerns about increased exposure to existing diseases such as parvovirus, leptospirosis and distemper. The perceived influence of social media in spreading misinformation about vaccines led to calls for vets to help combat the negative messages.

In contrast, an announcement in November of a further fall in sales of antibiotics for use in animals in 2017/18 (the most recent figures available) was welcome. A 9 per cent reduction in sales of antibiotics for food-producing animals contributed to an overall decrease of 53 per cent in the four years since 2014. The efforts of farmers and vets to reduce use of antimicrobials had been acknowledged earlier in the year when, in February, the (then) chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, described them as ‘fantastic’.

In the year just gone, 11 new badger culling licences were issued, bringing the total number of active culling areas to 40

In January, the government unveiled a new 20-year vision and five-year action plan setting out how the UK will contribute to containing and controlling antimicrobial resistance by 2040 and, in September, the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance convened a new taskforce to set targets for further reductions in on-farm antibiotic use after 2020.

No round up of animal health issues would be complete without mentioning bovine TB (bTB), the control of which continues to divide opinion. Amid ongoing debate about whether badger culling has a positive impact on disease levels in cattle, 11 new culling licences were issued, bringing the total number of active culling areas to 40. In October, the British Cattle Veterinary Association published a new position paper calling for a ‘revamp’ of the approach to bTB, putting vets in the driving seat. The following month, the British Veterinary Zoological Society changed its policy on the control of bTB to acknowledge that, in some limited circumstances, badger culling may be necessary as a last resort.

Also in November, the Welsh government approved the use of some novel tests for bTB in the hope of identifying infected cattle missed by the standard skin test. The scale of undetected bTB infection in cattle proved a controversial subject in 2019, with an analysis of Defra data by the Animal Welfare Group (a coalition of vets and scientists) suggesting that thousands of cattle could be acting as a reservoir for the disease in England – this analysis was subsequently disputed by the UK’s chief veterinary officer and colleagues in Defra.

In Practice was given a fresh new look to mark its 40th anniversary

A glimmer of hope emerged in December, when scientists at the University of Surrey announced that they had developed a novel vaccine to protect cattle from the disease, which would also allow infected animals to be distinguished from vaccinated animals. Although still in the early stages of development, the vaccine could eventually be another tool for use in tackling this intractable problem.

Vet journals

And finally, 2019 saw developments for the BVA’s journals.

In Practice was given a fresh new look to mark its 40th anniversary, while Vet Record began publishing new features and columns. It launched a ‘Balance’ section in April, with support from VDS, aiming to improve and support vets’ wellbeing at work and off-duty

Vet Record is helping draw up a manifesto for evidence-based veterinary medicine

Another new feature was ‘The Evidence Base’, which launched in July to make the case for a new approach to evidence-based veterinary medicine (EBVM). Vet Record is helping draw up a manifesto for EBVM, based on a manifesto for evidence-based medicine developed by The BMJ and the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine in 2017. Vet Record published a draft manifesto in August and will revisit this later this year.

The journal is also keen to support veterinary innovation and, to that end, it relaunched its Innovation Award in November. Entries should be submitted by 25 January and shortlisted applicants will have the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of experts and potential investors at the Animal Health Investment Europe forum in February.

The coming year looks set to be as busy as the one just gone. It seems inevitable that Brexit will continue to dominate the agenda but, as has been proved in 2019, it is still possible to achieve a great deal against a turbulent background. ●

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