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Focus on Brexit: are we more prepared?

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By Matthew Limb and Josh Loeb

This time last year, when a no-deal Brexit seemed a distinct possibility, Vet Record examined in detail its implications across seven key areas of interest to vets – UK-EU trade, medicines, the Irish border, workforce, transporting animals, animal welfare and education/research funding (VR, 12 October 2019, vol 185, pp 429-432; 19 October 2019, vol 185, pp 463-467).

Then Brexit happened – not a no-deal Brexit, but Brexit with a time-limited implementation period. Now, as the clock ticks down on trade talks between the UK and EU, we return to these subject areas to see what – if anything – has changed since last year and to gauge preparedness ahead of the ‘real’ Brexit date of 31 December 2020 when the UK will leave the EU single market and customs union at 23:00.

As we did last time around, we have provided a traffic light ‘score’ to indicate our assessment of the UK’s preparedness (with green indicating ‘ready’, red ‘not ready’ and amber somewhere in between). This is, admittedly, a necessarily subjective judgement. Any changes from last year’s score are also noted in summaries below.

This first article will focus on UK-EU trade, medicines and the Irish border. The second article will feature in the next issue of Vet Record, and will cover workforce, transporting animals, animal welfare and education/research funding.

UK-EU trade

Rating unchanged from last year

The terms of the UK’s future trade with the EU are, as yet, still largely unknown. The UK is following EU trade rules until the Brexit transition period ends at the end of the year. There is presently no agreed deal for future UK-EU trade.

Without an agreed deal, the UK would trade with the EU under a basic set of rules governed by the World Trade Organization

Talks are said to be stuck on issues including fishing rights. Without an agreed deal, the UK would trade with the EU under a basic set of rules governed by the World Trade Organization from 1 January 2021.

This would apply tariffs to most goods which UK businesses send to the EU, making them more expensive to sell there. The UK could also apply its own tariffs on EU imports.

A no-deal outcome has long sparked fears that lorries laden with animals, products and other freight will be held up at borders by extra certification and customs processes.

In its worst-case scenario planning, the Cabinet Office says there could be queues of up to 7000 trucks in Kent, disrupting imports and exports.

On certification, Defra secretary of state George Eustice told MPs last month that up to 300,000 export health certificates (EHCs) could be required annually from 1 January – a five-fold increase on current levels (VR, 3/10 October 2020, vol 187, p 250). Defra estimates an extra 200 full-time equivalent (FTE) official veterinarians (OVs) will be needed to certify exports of products of animal origin.

The department has succeeded in doubling the number of OVs qualified to do such work since February 2019 – up from 600 to 1200 – and added more than 100 certification support officers, who can help with paperwork.

Defra has also allocated funds for training to boost capacity further (see p 321). It says qualified vets doing certification work will be made up of those who focus on it almost exclusively and those who fit it around other veterinary activities. ‘We therefore cannot be certain how many vets will be required to fulfil FTE OV demand,’ a Defra spokesperson said.

However, the BVA and other industry figures believe the government should be doing more. BVA president James Russell says: ‘The majority of OVs signing EHCs fit this around their work in clinical practice, so the FTE figure of 200 extra vets cited by government actually translates to many more in reality.’

Simon Doherty, a former BVA president, suggests if an average OV does 0.5–1.0 days per week of EHCs ‘it doesn’t take a genius to work out that we need 1000 to 2000 of extra trained OVs to hit the 200 extra FTEs apparently needed’.

Industry analyst Jason Aldiss, former managing director of Eville & Jones – a company contracted by the government to provide health certificates – estimates the UK would need 350 FTEs to meet extra certification needs.

Aldiss, a non-executive director with Advanced Agritech Solutions, remains concerned over Defra’s preparedness to handle certification volumes for products going out of the UK and the capacity at border control points to handle products coming in.

‘There’s also lack of IT infrastructure to actually ensure the integrity of the certification process and traceability and the ability to interact with trading partners when we are not part of European IT infrastructure,’ he says.

Aldiss says industry is concerned about access to vets, including those working in abattoirs and the farming sector – both traditionally dependent on migrant workers.


Rating improved from amber last year

Most veterinary medicines available on the UK market are imported from or via the EU.

The predictable supply of products to the UK is dependent on functioning supply chains that are in turn dependent to a large extent on the Dover-Calais short straits.

The National Office of Animal Health (NOAH), which represents the UK animal medicines industry, says an EU trade deal with practical arrangements at borders is a ‘key priority’ to ensure the smooth movement of products from the end of this year.

However, NOAH insists it has a ‘good degree of confidence’ in the continued availability of animal medicines because animal health companies have worked hard on EU exit preparations and contingency planning, both in terms of regulatory requirements and their supply chains such as warehousing, stocks and routes.

‘From a supply chain perspective, if delays around Kent and the short straits become protracted, lasting for several weeks to months, then this could potentially eventually cause a supply issue, outside of the animal health industry’s control,’ the organisation says.

BVA president Russell says there are no significant concerns just now about veterinary medicines supply after Brexit. The BVA is monitoring the situation ‘in close dialogue’ with NOAH and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD).

Russell says there are robust measures in place to mitigate against problems, as there were before Brexit, such as lifting restrictions on medicines that can be temporarily used as alternatives, or prioritising emergency use ‘if absolutely necessary’ in the short term.

‘We know many vets have had questions from clients about stock levels. There would clearly be concerns if supplies fell short during periods of peak seasonal demand, or if vaccines or medicines for controlling long-term conditions started to run low,’ he says.

NOAH says it is working with the VMD and government to prepare for the post-transition period, looking at the opportunities for UK agriculture in future trade and for new animal health product innovation.

It adds that, from a regulatory point of view, there is ‘adequate clarity’ on the requirements to place veterinary medicines on the market in the UK following the end of the transition period.

The VMD says it has ‘robust and well-established arrangements’ with the veterinary pharmaceutical industry for dealing with any supply issues that may arise.

The Irish border

Rating unchanged from last year

The unique situation on the island of Ireland continues to present unique challenges

The unique situation on the island of Ireland continues to present unique challenges. ‘No change there, then,’ as many a keen follower of the Brexit process might say.

A special protocol for Northern Ireland was meant to ensure the free flow of goods across the border with the Republic of Ireland, part of the EU, in the event of no-deal.

But there is a new spanner in the works. The UK’s controversial Internal Market Bill threatens to disapply parts of the protocol – in breach of commitments – without, so far, crashing trade talks. The precise scale of future checks on livestock and products of animal origin moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain remains unclear.

Defra secretary of state Eustice has said that in the event of no new trade agreement being reached with the EU, the government in Westminster could take some matters concerning veterinary checks, for example on agrifood goods, into its own hands.

Susan Cunningham, president of the BVA’s Northern Ireland branch, says vets in the province are already ‘doing their best to be in a position to meet whatever expectations result from the conclusion of negotiations’.

She says the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has conceded that it will be a ‘monumental challenge’ to have new port checks in place by the end of the transition period.

‘We will continue to work hard to support our clients and the agricultural industry alongside making an urgent case for more clarity to help us to prepare,’ says Cunningham. ●

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