Pigeon Post: Ian Neville reports from the UK

We have finally cleared the end of 2020, a year I am sure most of us will be delighted to see the back of. There are so many reasons for wishing this year away: its unpredictability and disruption, the limits on freedoms, the fear, loneliness, stress, loss of employment, loss of income and loss of loved ones too. Though mass vaccination will hopefully rid us of coronavirus during the course 2021, its economic, social and psychological effects are certain to persist through 2021 and beyond. The UK economy is expected to shrink by 11 per cent this year; the largest contraction for 300 years! Government borrowing is projected to balloon out to £394 (A$709) billion and unemployment to rise to 7.5 per cent by spring 2021. Some economists are predicting a deeper recession than the UK endured following the widespread de-industrialisation of the 1980s. This scenario applies equally to some other European countries hard hit by the virus like Spain, France and Italy, but in addition the UK has to rapidly conclude a trade deal with the European Union before the 31st December or face widespread tariffs on trade and crippling disruption at ports and airports. 

Virus fall-out is expected to have ongoing adverse effects on the health and well-being of both pets and veterinary staff into 2021. Vets were only permitted to treat emergency cases between 23rd March and 28th May and although services have recovered somewhat since then concern remains that a following rise in preventable disease is inevitable after the suspension of routine pet healthcare and because some owners are still fearful of seeking veterinary attention. The problem may be compounded because lockdown seems to have prompted more people than usual to acquire a new puppy. Veterinary staff have clearly been exposed to unusual levels of stress by the pandemic and may be suffering from the same kind of ‘burn-out’ experienced by medics and nurses trying to manage COVID-19 while maintaining routine healthcare provision. Veterinary students and recent graduates have probably had to cope with the most disruption as undergraduate courses have been changed, suspended, or went online and the day-to-day business of practice has been nothing like new graduates could ever have anticipated. Despite all this the profession does seem to be coping overall and the most recent data from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons COVID-19 impact survey found that 58 per cent of respondent practices were working at ‘near normal’ levels, there has been a reduction in remote consulting and 56 per cent of practices reported turnover was stable or increased since the emergence of Covid-19.

The UK has come out well in the latest available (2018) European sales data for antimicrobials. It indicates the UK is successfully continuing to reduce its use of antimicrobials and showing the best performance among Europe’s five largest nations. Sales of all antimicrobials for animal use to the UK amounted 226.2 tonnes in 2018, comparing very favourably with the two biggest users: Spain 1724.6 tonnes and Italy 942.2 tonnes. When expressed as a product of livestock numbers and theoretical weight at the time of administration (PCU) the UK’s consumption was 29.5mg/PCU compared to 244mg/PCU in Italy and 219.2mg/PCU in Spain. On this basis the UK had the fifth lowest antimicrobial usage in Europe, bettered only by: Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Norway which recorded usages in the range of  2.9 – 18.7 mg/PCU. The figures for 2019 are due out shortly, but another unhelpful outcome of leaving the EU without a trade deal is that this excellent progress may be undermined if the UK is forced to open its markets under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules to imports of cheap American food, which is not subject to the same levels of ethical and welfare practices currently mandated in the EU. The British consumer may soon be offered meat products that have attained their competitive price point by utilising questionable practices including: the administration of more antibiotics and EU prohibited hormones and steroids, accepting higher levels of microbial contamination and pesticide residues and the chlorine washing of poultry carcasses to mask poor production standards. After MPs failed to vote for current UK production standards to be applied to food imports after Brexit, all this hard work to drive down antimicrobial use could be undermined. British farmers could ultimately be undercut by a laissez-faire free trade policy; a ‘race to the bottom’ that could make British farming unprofitable and ultimately unsustainable for some.

Well, that is enough of 2020 for me. The year in which every cloud seemed to have an even darker lining. Where attempts to step forward frequently resulted in staggering back. The UK ends the year transitioning from a second national lockdown in early December to tiered restrictions of unknown duration. Surely 2021 will eventually usher in some return to normality? A hopeful New Year to all.

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