Pigeon Post: Ian Neville reports from the UK

Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic the UK is no longer the ‘sick man’ of Europe. A slew of European nations including Spain, France, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and The Netherlands now have higher infection rates. Of course that may change as winter advances; the flare up in Victoria has taught us that the course of Covid-19 infections is neither even nor predictable. Although some small semblance of normality has returned to life and work in the UK it is clear that the pandemic has necessitated significant, perhaps lasting changes to the way veterinary services are provided and for veterinary businesses and institutions.

One very high-profile casualty of coronavirus has been the Animal Health Trust (AHT), a prominent research institute based near Newmarket, Suffolk. Founded in 1942 the trust has enjoyed royal patronage since 1959, working with companion animals and equines and ironically playing a major role in disease surveillance. A survival plan to close the equine and small animal referral practices and focus on research and surveillance came to nothing. The organisation employing 257 people, many of them veterinarians, had been in financial difficulties before the advent of coronavirus, but the financial squeeze around lockdown proved to be the final blow making future operation unviable. The AHT had been highly regarded for its work in: equine infectious disease, feline cardiomyopathy, canine cancer and genomics. At present there is no government or commercial organisation ready to fill the gap left by its demise.

Across England in Somerset the Langford Equine Hospital announced it too would close at the end of August. This well-established referral facility, the largest in the south-west, was once the University of Bristol’s equine teaching hospital, though it was privatised in 2009. Around 20 veterinary redundancies are anticipated, and the university will have to find alternative provision for its equine hospital undergraduate training. Combined with the loss of the AHT closures like these begin to threaten the primacy of the UK’s equine research capabilities.

An unexpected consequence of lockdown has been a substantially increased demand for puppies of the currently popular breeds. The Dogs Trust charity reported that between March and June this year the prices being asked online for puppies of the most popular breeds had risen by 89 per cent for dachshunds, 67 per cent for chow chows, 56 per cent for pugs, 52 per cent for French bulldogs and 31 per cent for English bulldogs. The average price across these breeds in March was £1,132 (A$2,072) rising to £1,763 (A$3,226) by June with individuals of the English bulldog breed, now costing well over £2,000 (A$3,660) each! The charity is concerned that such inflated prices will only encourage more puppy smuggling and its associated cruel and illegal practises in pursuit of pure profit; followed shortly by a wave of dogs being abandoned.

Not directly related to coronavirus but made more relevant by the changes the pandemic has brought to veterinary practice, The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is looking at proposals to change the rules governing the role of registered veterinary nurses (RVNs). The proposals to expand the work roles of RVNs include: allowing nurses to perform cat castrations again (a procedure they were allowed to perform before 1988), prescribe some veterinary prescription medicines, play a greater role in patient anaesthesia and to operate more independently in a type of ‘district nurse’ role. The proposed changes have been welcomed by the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) which has been campaigning for legislation changes to enhance VN career progression and job satisfaction.

Finally, the best way to tackle another troublesome organism (Mycobacterium bovis)  is back in the news again. After what seems like an interminable (25 year) argument in government and the profession, between farmers and conservationists and amongst the public at large, vaccination trials for bTB have finally been given the go ahead in England and Wales with a view to deploying a vaccine for cattle by 2025 and eradication by 2038. More than 40,000 cattle are slaughtered in the UK due to bTB infection each year and it is estimated to have cost the taxpayer more than £500 million (A$915 million) to date. Until recently vaccination has not been considered an option, but as the UK prepares to leave the European Union on December 31 and now that badger culling trials have failed to satisfactorily reduced bovine infection rates; recent developments in vaccine technology (including the ability to differentiate vaccinated from naturally infected animals) have made vaccination a realistic weapon to add to the armoury for eradication. The policy ‘U-turn’ now envisages bovine and badger vaccination, the phasing out of badger culling, and its replacement by improved testing.


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