Pigeon Post: Ian Neville writes from the UK

The UK has had a reasonable summer. Emerging from 16 months of COVID restrictions, ill health, and deaths beside the economic uncertainties of Brexit; a largely vaccinated population has, so far, been allowed to return to life largely as it was before March 2020.

Warmer weather is always welcome and to this could be added some national sporting pride in the England soccer team making it as far as the European Championship final (losing to Italy on penalties) in July and laudable success at the delayed Tokyo Olympics in August achieving overall 4th place in the final medal table. Unusually two of our Olympic medallists are qualified vets. Scottish runner Laura Muir and cyclist Neah Evans both won silvers in the 1500m and team pursuit events respectively. Both athletes qualified from Glasgow vet school; Evans in 2014 then worked in the profession until 2017, Muir has been a full-time sportswoman since qualifying in 2018.

Not many of us have a high-profile alternative vocation to turn to, but it seems that UK vets and vet nurses, particularly the younger ones, are continuing to desert the profession and a veterinary skill shortage is really starting to bite here just as it is in Australia (see The Veterinarian May 2021 issue). The reason here seems to be multifactorial, though dissatisfaction with the profession is certainly one cause. Other contributors to the situation include: fewer EU qualified vets now coming to the UK to work, the difficulties of working under COVID restrictions, an increase in pet ownership during the pandemic and escalating client complaints as fewer staff attempt to keep on top of an escalating workload. The domestic supply of graduates shouldn’t be the issue, as undergraduate intake has been pushing up remorselessly with expanded year groups and more universities offering vet and vet nursing qualifications than ever before. The severity of the situation is clear when some out-of-hours service providers are asking clients not to attend with non-urgent problems and some practices are reducing hours, closing branch clinics, or no longer accepting new clients to keep workloads manageable.

Registration data from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) shows that there were 1,132 European Union (EU) vets working in the UK in 2019, by 2020 that had fallen to 740. Similarly, new registrations from the EU fell from 69 in May 2019 to just 15 this May. The travel and quarantine difficulties associated with COVID-19 are an unavoidable factor, but the UK’s withdrawal from the EU also makes the process more difficult and the UK seem a less ‘welcoming’ work prospect for Europeans. COVID is also responsible for an increase in pet ownership as families stuck at home for months on end saw a pet as an excellent diversion. COVID has also taken clinical staff away from the workplace either through illness, furlough, or a requirement to isolate at home for 10 days after coming into contact with infected persons. Consequent on staffing shortages and struggling to provide a service under difficult circumstances has been a rise in client complaints and threatening behaviour. The British Veterinary Association says that vets in clinical practice have reported a 10 per cent increase in intimidating language or behaviours since 2019, while the number of referrals to the RCVS funded Veterinary Client Mediation Service rose by 30 per cent between 2019 and 2020. This is likely to be due to the reduced availability of veterinary services, clients’ financial difficulties, the implementation of COVID protocols in clinics and a consequent reduction in face-to-face communications.

This was also a very taxing for environment for new graduates to try and find their feet in, so it’s unsurprising that some found the challenge too great. Meantime, the staff who have worked through the last year and a half are now exhausted and demoralised. Staff shortage has reignited calls for better renumeration in the profession as both employed vets and nurses feel that their contribution in sustaining care is not being reflected in fair pay for what has always been the worst paid profession. One RVN started an online petition in early August demanding better pay for Registered Veterinary Nurses, which has so far received over 10,500 signatories. The pressures of the pandemic on top of a shortage of veterinary skills seems to have highlighted a dissatisfaction that has been grumbling on for years around working conditions which is unlikely to be resolved as long as the profession’s hierarchy appears disconnected from the frontline realities of veterinary care provision.

Clearly many have suffered on various levels since COVID put an extra squeeze on the profession, but the recent case of an eminent RCVS fellow being struck off the veterinary register was a startling example of the pressures that can build, even for those with experience and a distinguished international reputation. Dr Sue Dyson MA VetMB, PhD, FRCVS and a recognised European specialist in Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation was head of clinical orthopaedics at the Centre for Equine Studies at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, Suffolk for 37 years. She was found guilty of forging a letter from a fictitious Home Office inspector in December 2018 stating that her research project (‘Influence of rider: horse body weight ratios on equine welfare and performance – pilot study’) did not require a Home Office licence. In mitigation Dyson said that she regretted her action which was a ‘moment of madness’ and was under a huge amount of pressure at the time, both professionally and personally. However the RCVS Disciplinary Committee determined that her deceit’ and subsequent dishonest actions discredited the profession, and she was removed from the register for dishonesty on 9th July. Dyson had been a veterinary surgeon for 41 years.

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