The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) Disciplinary Committee has reprimanded and warned a North Yorkshire-based veterinary surgeon after she was found to have been dishonest in her veterinary certification regarding documentation relating to her official avian influenza surveillance visits, which risked undermining procedures designed to protect animal welfare and public health.
Dr Amelia Briggs, MRCVS, appeared before the Disciplinary Committee between Thursday 30 November 2023 and Friday 8 December 2023 with four charges against her.
At the outset of the hearing Dr Amelia Briggs admitted her conduct as set out in the first three charges against her.
These charges related to three official Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) clinical investigation report forms she submitted following three official avian flu surveillance visits Amelia Briggs undertook in her professional capacity as a veterinary surgeon and her government veterinary role as an official veterinarian.
The three surveillance visits all took place during a serious outbreak of avian influenza in North Yorkshire and were on behalf of the APHA.
Dr Amelia Briggs admitted she had certified on each of the three forms that she had inspected specific poultry, that she had seen no clinical signs of avian influenza in the poultry and that in her opinion avian influenza did not exist and had not existed in the previous 56 days.
She also admitted that that she had subsequently submitted the three forms to the APHA.
The fourth charge alleged that Dr Amelia Briggs’ conduct in certifying the three forms had been dishonest and that her actions risked undermining procedures, regulations and rules designed to protect animal welfare and public health.
Dr Briggs denied that she had been dishonest in any of her actions but admitted that her conduct had risked undermining procedures designed to protect animal welfare and public health.
She explained that in two cases she had relied on information given to her by the keepers of the poultry and in the remaining case it was possible that she had not visited the correct location of the poultry, had posted letter through the wrong door and had then accidentally submitted a pre-populated inspection form to APHA.
Having heard evidence from the relevant poultry keepers, fellow official veterinarians, officials from the APHA and Dr Amelia Briggs herself, the Committee gave its determinations on dishonesty.
In relation to the first two charges, which concerned the visits that did take place, the Committee found that Dr Amelia Briggs had been dishonest in submitting the inspection forms to the APHA and in certifying that she had seen no clinical signs or history of avian influenza in both cases.
The Committee concluded that an ordinary decent person would regard the submission of a signed form which contained false information as dishonest.
It also concluded that Dr Amelia Briggs had deliberately signed an official form which contained information which she knew to be untrue.
However, the Committee found that Dr Amelia Briggs was not dishonest in asserting on these forms that she was of the opinion that disease did not exist based on the information provided to her by the poultry keepers.
In relation to the third charge, where Dr Amelia Briggs did not visit the property concerned, the Committee did not find it proven that she had been dishonest, having heard her evidence that, in this case, she had accidentally submitted a pre-populated inspection form.
The Committee next considered whether the admitted and proven charges amounted to serious professional misconduct with reference to the Code of Professional Conduct for Veterinary Surgeons and the 10 Principles of Certification, which forms part of the Code’s supporting guidance.
Paul Morris, chairing the Committee and speaking on its behalf said: “In considering the seriousness of the misconduct, the Committee took into account the fact that the misconduct had involved dishonesty, that there had been a risk of injury to animals and humans (though this risk had not materialised), and that the misconduct had occurred when the respondent, as an official veterinarian, occupied a position of increased trust and responsibility.”
He added: “The Committee considered that honest, accurate and careful veterinary certification was a fundamental component of the responsibilities of a veterinary surgeon.
“The matters which the Committee had found to be proved fell far short of the standards expected of a registered veterinary surgeon and amounted, in the Committee’s judgment, to disgraceful conduct in a professional respect.”
In considering the most appropriate sanction for Dr Amelia Briggs the Committee heard positive character testimonials from former employers and clients, as well as a representative from the APHA who said that Dr Amelia Briggs had shown contrition for the breaches while recognising that there was unlikely to be a repetition of the conduct and that Dr Amelia Briggs was a relatively new and inexperienced vet at the time of her actions.
Paul Morris said: “In the Committee’s judgement the circumstances of the incident were a mitigating factor in the sense that the respondent was working in a pressurised environment, and in a field of practice which was unfamiliar to her.
“The Committee had heard a considerable amount of evidence from various witnesses that the surveillance system created, to monitor the prevalence of avian influenza was one which placed considerable pressure on OVs and, perhaps inevitably, had some shortcomings.
“The respondent had not worked with poultry before so her inexperience in this area fed into this situation.
“The Committee took into account the fact that no actual harm had occurred and there was no financial gain to the respondent.
“The matters with which the Committee was concerned formed a highly unusual, and short-lived, episode in the respondent’s career.”
The Committee also considered that Dr Briggs had made open and frank admissions regarding most of the charges against her and had also shown genuine contrition over her failings.
“In light of this, the Committee considered that a reprimand and warning as to future conduct was the most appropriate sanction.
Paul added: “False certification can never be acceptable. Veterinary surgeons should never certify any matter which they know, or ought to know, not to be true.
“However, the Committee considered that this case was at the lower end of the spectrum of gravity of false certification cases, that there is no future risk to animals and that the respondent has demonstrated insight.
“In relation to the public interest, the Committee considered that a reasonable and fully informed member of the public would recognise that, in all the circumstances of this particular case, a reprimand and warning as to future conduct would be sufficient to satisfy the public interest.”
The full findings of the Disciplinary Committee can be found on their website.