How can we keep our veterinary workforce healthy?
With the coronavirus pandemic already creating immense challenges for veterinary working practices and now with Brexit on the horizon and winter approaching, James Russell, the new President of the British Veterinary Association, speaks about his plans for his Presidency.
James Russell has taken over the presidency of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) at a challenging time.
With the coronavirus pandemic already creating immense challenges for working practices and now with Brexit on the horizon and winter approaching, there are likely to be significant pressures on the profession continuing over the next few months.
“How can we make sure that we protect these people and allow them to continue doing the important job that they're doing safely?” James asked, when speaking to PoliticsHome recently.
“The kind of carpark medicine that we've carried out, is going to be much harder to carry out on a rainy Friday afternoon in Bolton, than it was in the middle of July,” he warned.
“We were able to continue to fulfil our role and I think that's something that we can all be incredibly proud to have been a part of.”
“Whilst people did that, and did that fantastically, it's taken its toll,” he continued.
When speaking to James, it is clear he is deeply passionate and concerned for the welfare of vets, and that is demonstrated no more clearly than his chosen theme for his president of: ‘Keeping Vets Healthy’.
James emphasised that creating a sustainable work environment is “potentially the biggest challenge” for BVA over the next year.
“I'd already considered my title of ‘Keeping Vets Healthy’ before Covid-19 hit,” he said, “but I think it's become incredibly pressing now,” he continued.
James graduated from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 2002 and spent many of the early years of his career in farm practices. After taking co-ownership of an expanding practice group in 2011, this presented many challenges which became a formative experience for him: “that was a really important time in terms of my understanding of the pressures, the challenges on the profession,” he said.
This time in practice also lead to a period of what James describes as mental ill health, which is he keen to talk about.
We need to do whatever we can, as an association to help improve people's workplace experience.
“From my personal background of having been in quite a challenging place in terms of my mental health, I don't want to see anyone else go through that,” he explained.
With the overarching theme of creating a healthy work environment for vets, mental health sits at the heart of James’ priorities for his presidency.
“Nothing ever has a single cause. But I think we need to do whatever we can, as an association to help improve people's workplace experience,” he explained.
BVA has recently launched new Good Veterinary Workplaces Guidance, which James states will underpin the organisation’s work in this area.
The Good Veterinary Workplaces Guidance, made available to veterinary practices across the country, sets out BVA’s vision for how a good veterinary workplace should look, highlighting the core principles and key resources every workplace should have.
This includes many aspects of creating a safe and healthy workplace, including guidance on mental health provision, looking after and respecting each other, to time-off and career development.
“I see that as being a very important part of being BVA,” he enthused.
James is also keen to stress that central to his agenda of creating better workplaces, will be continuing the hard work of previous President, Daniella Dos Santos, in addressing diversity in the sector.
Recently, BVA conducted a workplace survey, the results of this showed that unconscious bias was having a significant effect on the sector, with male names more likely to get positions than female names and more likely to get a higher salary.
“A lot of the work that we're doing now is starting right at the beginning of that journey, showing people or showcasing people who are already in those positions,” he explained.
“One of my favourite case studies in the Good Veterinary Workplaces Guidance, is the one which champions the employment practices of government, and shows that actually, recruitment is done blind for exactly the reasons of avoiding any unconscious bias,” he explained.
For James it is important to stress that this applies across the breadth of the profession, a message that is at the core of BVA’s agenda.
“I deliberately say workplace rather than practice, because I think this is equally applicable to those working in hygiene roles, or in labs or government work,” he explained.
Outside of the traditional roles that one might imagine when we think of vets, there are many more working across the profession in abattoirs, meat hygiene work and other often lesser known areas.
With Brexit on the horizon, alongside BVA’s successful campaign to have vets added to the shortage occupation list, the BVA President is concerned about the visa conditions for those who play a vital role in the veterinary workforce but whom are not on the shortage occupation list.
Particularly with these roles, Brexit is likely to have a significant impact. Many EU vets start off as meat hygiene inspectors when they come to work in the UK, and then may move into Official Veterinarian (OV) roles in abattoirs before in some cases going into different areas of practice.
“I think the challenge beyond that is we've got to recognise the route into work that has been taken by a lot of non-UK EU nationals over the last few years,” he continued.
“It's crucial that we've got those people coming in to do that work, because it's what's kept the food chain going over the last few months and years.”
“We remain very concerned that that avenue may not be open and may prove an obstacle to us maintaining that flow of people into the veterinary profession,” he continued.
We're really concerned that we don't understand what it is we're going to need to do at the moment, and therefore can't give any confidence that there is the veterinary capacity to deliver what we expect to be the situation on the first of January.
Alongside this, BVA is concerned with capacity in the existing workforce after Brexit, particularly with the new requirements for export health certificates.
The BVA President explained that the mid-range estimate from the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, is that there's going to be a five-fold increase in the requirements for export health certificates in the event of a no deal Brexit.
The belief that the current veterinary workforce would be able to deliver on this new bureaucratic requirement is “very, very far from the reality,” says James Russell.
“We're really concerned that we don't understand what it is we're going to need to do at the moment, and therefore can't give any confidence that there is the veterinary capacity to deliver what we expect to be the situation on the first of January,” he said.
There are other concerns with Brexit too. Recently, BVA held a parliamentary briefing on welfare at slaughter, but this also went on to discuss concerns about welfare standards being compromised in pursuit of future trade deals.
“We are hugely concerned that at the moment, the Government is saying one thing and doing another, it was a Conservative party manifesto commitment, as you'll be well aware that no trade deals would compromise animal welfare at home and that's in their manifesto,” he explained.
He said: “It's not reflected in the Trade Bill. And we remain very, very concerned about that.”
A few days after speaking to PoliticsHome, MPs voted down an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would have required for imports to meet high animal welfare standards, something which BVA denounced as ‘a severe blow for animal welfare and a betrayal of the Government’s own manifesto commitment to maintain and improve on health and welfare standards.’
I can't begin to tell you how both proud and honoured I am, to now be the person at BVA who sits in the room with those parliamentarians and talks about this brilliant, brilliant work.
Moving forward, BVA will now turn its attention to push for the fledgling Trade and Agriculture Commission to be given more powers to safeguard standards in future trade deals.
On animal sentience, BVA is continuing its work to see it enshrined in law, and James is keen to move the argument on to now addressing the detail of the policy.
“What should we be pushing for when we say we would like animal sentience enshrined in law?” he asked.
“I think there's a sort of an acceptance already that mammals are sentient and do feel pain," he said.
But, he explains, some animals that have not been included for example, crustaceans.
“Is it right in the 21st century that we boil lobsters alive?” he asks.
He sees now as a crucial moment for the role of BVA in effecting policy change, saying it has “never been more important” with the Agriculture Bill, and “what that does to animal health and welfare standards in the UK and abroad.”
“I can't begin to tell you how both proud and honoured I am, to now be the person at BVA who sits in the room with those parliamentarians and talks about this brilliant, brilliant work,” he concluded.