Pigeon post from the UK

The British summer is drawing to a close, but unlike last year’s exceptionally hot and dry conditions (an unprecedented maximum of 40.3°C recorded), 2023 will be remembered as a mostly cool and very wet summer. Measured rainfall in my home region (Yorkshire) during July was 218 per cent of the long-term average. The conditions seemed reminiscent of my boyhood and the national news was duly plastered with images of families sheltering from wind and rain on camping grounds or beachfronts as they endured a ‘traditional’ British summer holiday. The vagaries of our maritime climate are never far from the national consciousness or daily chit-chat, and even more so since climate change has made accurate forecasting even more problematic. 

Likewise, the activities of corporate veterinary groups have remained headline news across all veterinary media outlets and a hot topic in staff room conversation over recent months as their growing influence on the profession continues to evolve. In May the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced its initial findings into acquisitions by the Medivet group concluding that a ‘realistic prospect’ existed of a loss of competition and out-of-hours provision in some areas of England and Northern Ireland if proposed buyouts went ahead. This is the fourth investigation by the CMA into veterinary groups over the last two years which have previously involved: CVS, IVC Evidensia, Vet Partners and the Eville and Jones group. The CMA is concerned that the progressive acquisition of independent practices is reducing competition and raising prices or lowering the quality of service offered at a time when household budgets are already squeezed by the ‘cost of living crisis’. The CMA has authority to investigate mergers when any acquired business generates over £70 million (A$137 million) of its turnover in the UK or where the combined entity has at least a 25 per cent market share nationally or in a region. In June the devolved Welsh government (the Senedd) began considering a petition, signed by vets and members of the public calling for an investigation into the ‘corporate takeover’ of the veterinary sector in Wales. Comments by petitioners included claims that the profession had ‘lost its principles’ and was colluding with corporate business at the expense of animal welfare. An inquiry is to be held in the autumn when the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and veterinary representatives will have an opportunity to give evidence to the Senedd. Corporate takeovers have also attracted opposition in the Republic of Ireland since 2021 where rationalisation has left some rural clients without local veterinary services or a more expensive provision.

Around the same time the IVC Evidensia group was at the centre of a furore over restructuring proposals that could potentially see hundreds of redundancies in support and financial roles. The announcement caused widespread outrage among threatened employees and criticism from the Veterinary Management Group and the British Veterinary Union. There were even calls for clinical staff to consider strike action in support of their company colleagues and to protect their own future working conditions. Subsequently part of the CVS group, which was itself previously subject to a competition enquiry, also announced restructuring plans that may result in redundancies of support staff. It has been reported that some clinical staff in corporate practices now worry that the proposed redundancies mark a sea change away from prioritising clinical outcomes to chasing financial goals, and that the job losses are a direct result of companies overextending themselves in the race to expand. In July CVS group released its results for the year ending 30 June which revealed that  it had spent £55million (A$108 million) acquiring a further 11 UK practices. It also announced its first acquisitions of  independent small animal practices in Australia: three in Brisbane and one in Sydney for an estimated combined value of £16.8 million (A$40 million). The stated CVS future strategy for Australia is to acquire more practices in the major urban conurbations.

The imperative to control costs in the veterinary sector is not restricted to the handful of very large, UK corporate practices but is a result of generalised and continuing inflationary pressure on household disposable incomes. The rate of inflation has continued to fall slowly over the summer, but most prices have not come down, and goods and services generally remain far more expensive than they were just a couple of years ago. Speakers at the Veterinary Management Group congress in June reported deep-seated problems in practice as more clients become unable to afford treatment and more vets decided to leave the profession. The remaining practitioners are faced with the challenging task of managing the workload while pacifying an increasingly worried and belligerent clientele. Reducing their range of services, not accepting new clients and not appointing staff to fill vacancies are strategies practices have adopted to try and cope. There were also calls for practices to offer a more pragmatic, affordable approach to treatment to maximise pet welfare outcomes from more restricted spending. Long established pet charities like the PDSA and RSPCA are also struggling to provide their services as they have staff shortages and their income depends largely upon donations and legacies which are falling as the demand for their help rises. The consequence is that a tranche of the pet owning public are increasingly unable to access or afford adequate veterinary care.

Ian Neville

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