British Veterinary Association (BVA) President Justine Shotton tonight (Wednesday 20 October) acknowledged the triple whammy of pressures facing vets in Northern Ireland stemming from Brexit, Covid and a rise in pet ownership, and called on animal owners to be kind to their veterinary teams during continued challenges and uncertainty.
Addressing over 80 guests at BVA’s 2021 Northern Ireland Dinner in Stormont, BVA’s President said that a recent surge in pet ownership during Covid lockdowns has exacerbated pressures on veterinary professionals at a time when they have already been impacted by shortages and had to change their ways of working in order to comply with new restrictions and safety requirements.
She said: “A triple whammy of Brexit, Covid and a surge in pet ownership has taken its toll on the veterinary profession to levels we could never have imagined at the beginning of 2020.
“I know from the vets I have spoken to in Northern Ireland and across the UK that they have adjusted admirably to new pressures, new requirements, and new measures to keep themselves, colleagues and clients as safe as possible. But it is not sustainable. And as we take these small steps towards the new normal, it’s clear that weathering a perfect storm of pressures continues to be immensely difficult across the veterinary community.”
Addressing guests including Minister for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs Edwin Poots, MLAs, DAERA Permanent Secretary Anthony Harbison and NI Chief Veterinary Officer Robert Huey, Dr Shotton highlighted the importance of taking a ‘pragmatic and proportionate approach’ to ongoing Brexit discussions and being mindful of those working in the food chain who will be most impacted by any changes.
BVA has repeatedly raised concerns in the five years since the EU referendum about how new requirements and shifting timeframes in areas like the trade certification of animals and animal products is placing extra demands on veterinary capacity when there are already shortages at play across the workforce.
Dr Shotton said: “To us, the paramount priorities are preserving the integrity of the supply chain, supporting agriculture across the UK and – our overriding raison d’être – upholding high standards of animal health and welfare at every turn.
“Ultimately, it is those on the frontline of the food chain – the producers, farmers and vets – who stand to be most affected by any changes. And so I ask those involved in these important discussions to keep the agricultural community front and centre and make sure that there is adequate ongoing support for all those who may be impacted.”
Dr Shotton, who works at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, England, also outlined her presidential theme of ‘Sustainability’, and called on everyone present to play their part in important conversations and actions to protect the planet both now and for future generations.
She said: “The pandemic has centred the world’s attention on emerging diseases and how these interplay with how we use and impact on the natural environment.
“As a vet working for a conservation-focused zoo, I have always believed that we each have a part to play in ensuring our practices are sustainable for the long-term, and that we need to find the balance to allow humans to thrive while supporting our wider ecosystems and all the wonders they hold. On the cusp of COP26, I can think of no better time to really push forward these priorities, across our profession and beyond.”
Turning to pet welfare, Dr Shotton recognised that increased demand for pets during the pandemic had unfortunately paved the way for more low welfare breeding and prospective owners unknowingly buying puppies and kittens from disreputable sources.
Reflecting on Tuesday (19 October) night’s Spotlight programme on the illegal puppy trade, she said: “Last night’s BBC NI exposé into the huge numbers of puppies illegally coming across the border is a particularly stark and pertinent reminder to us all that more must be done to enforce rules around the movement of pets.
“We know that there is a huge amount to do collectively to manage these challenges and we’re keen to work with DAERA and others to tackle this trade once and for all.”
The BVA President ended her speech by thanking BVA Northern Ireland Branch for its hard work in an unprecedented year ‘like no other’.