UK faces a potential vet shortage post-Brexit according to Veterinary Regulator

Posted On: 
14th June 2017

The President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Dr Chris Tufnell spoke to PoliticsHome about the challenges facing the UK veterinary sector after Brexit.

Dr Tufnell calls on the Government to set up a Brexit taskforce to investigate the potential impact on the sector.
Credit: 
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Dr Tufnell said there are clear concerns for the animal health and welfare sector now since the UK voted to leave the EU in the referendum.

“It’s too early to say with confidence, but our initial data since the referendum suggests that the number of vets coming to work in the UK from overseas is levelling-off. Numbers have been going up year-on-year and are now plateauing.”

He stated that the veterinary sector immediately set up a Brexit Taskforce to look at the impact on the profession, not least the reliance on vets who come to the UK to practice.

“In recent years over 50% of new registrants on the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Register graduated overseas, many in the EU. The net effect of this is that over 30% of all vets practicing in the UK are from overseas and have often trained overseas too. Of these approximately 24% are from within the European Union”.

However, he explained, these numbers may still not tell the whole picture as a disproportionally high number of EU-qualified vets will be working full time.

“For most people that figure probably under-represents the true impact of EU-trained vets. A significant percentage of our own UK-grown vets are, for various reasons, working part-time”.

Dr Tufnell added the numbers become even more worrying in the context of the Government seeking to reduce net immigration.

He was clear that his sector was “expecting pressure from politicians on immigration”, causing concerns about a workforce shortfall.

“The potential impact of a tightening down on immigration and a goal of under 100,000 immigrants per year is a concern to us. It is unlikely the same number of foreign-born vets will be able to enter the UK as currently do”.

The RCVS is not only concerned about the impact of changes to the immigration regime, but also the rhetoric surrounding the issue: “Some vets are returning home as they don’t feel welcome anymore and others are changing their minds and deciding that the UK isn’t somewhere they want to come and work”.

Dr Tufnell explained the organisation has taken action to combat this. It has written to all EU-qualified veterinary surgeons registered in the UK to reassure them that they will be able to remain on the UK Register. The College has also commissioned a detailed study of what makes EU nationals come to live and work in the UK and in many cases to train here too.

Another potential cause for concern is the effect leaving the EU could have on animal health and welfare standards within the bloc: “We have had an impact on health and welfare standards within the EU and we are keen to help to maintain those standards and not see them drop.”

Dr Tufnell also said the pressure which could be put on the UK to water down these high welfare standards to compete with other new markets outside the EU:

“The pressure is from the world market; if we trade with others our farmers will want to be on a level playing field. The USA for example is a huge market with very different animal welfare standards to the UK’s. The USA, for example, supports routine use of antibiotics in a way which is unacceptable in the UK”.

He went on to say that, in light of the potential workforce shortage, the RCVS was also planning to lobby Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, to push for appropriate funding to allow the for the  required expansion of existing UK veterinary schools, or indeed the setting up of new veterinary schools.

Dr Tufnell said: “We would be supporting the universities by asking for more funding as the UK’s veterinary regulator”.

The Royal College and its President are both clear that the time may now have come to amend or replace the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act. One possibility includes expanding the role of veterinary nurses (VNs); a role and profession the RCVS has long campaigned for to be properly protected by UK law.

“If we could increase the number of veterinary nurses trained in the UK and increase and expand their role they could play a more significant part in relieving this potential shortage”.

Another change which could also help plug the veterinary manpower shortfall is innovation in the sector, such as new veterinary technologies and specifically telemedicine:

“Telemedicine is likely to revolutionise NHS care and it is possible that it could come into our sphere too,” the RCVS President added.

However there may be opportunities with Brexit as well as challenges. Dr Tufnell explained that the opportunity may arise for the RCVS to be able to restrict the registration of graduates of EU vet schools whose standards it is uncertain of. In addition, the College is now able to explore existing links and foster new ones with other countries where similar veterinary training standards exist, such as South Africa, the USA and Canada.

The RCVS President added that the organisation is “tentatively exploring” how we might start to work with veterinary authorities in countries like India and Pakistan with the aim of helping to harmonise veterinary standards in those countries to facilitate, in the longer term, the registration of their veterinary graduates in the UK.