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Introducing the UK’s new Chief Veterinary Officer

Find out what the key priorities will be for Christine Middlemiss in her first year as the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer

Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work in government

I come from a farming background in the south of Scotland. I was
always interested in being a vet because I like to know why things work
and why animals do what they do.

I graduated from Glasgow Vet School and spent quite a long time in
practice – both in the south of Scotland and north of England.
Subsequently, I damaged my back from all the work you do in practice, so
I joined government in 2008. I have worked in delivery aspects of
government out in the field through to policy roles in London.

I really enjoy working in government. I came here because of the
physical constraints of being in practice and, actually, I have never
used my vet brain to make such a difference.

Christine Middlemiss speaks about her background, why she applied for the role of Chief Veterinary Officer for the UK and what the key priorities are for the first year in her new role.

What made you apply for the role of CVO in the UK?

Coming from the UK and a farming background, I’m very passionate
about animal health and agriculture here. I was working out in Australia
as Chief Vet for New South Wales – a fantastic personal and
professional learning experience. But the opportunity to be back here
when there is so much going on around EU Exit and what farming and our
livestock industry might look like for the future, and to be part of
influencing that, was an opportunity too good to miss.

What were the biggest challenges you faced as CVO in New South Wales?

At the time, in Queensland, there was an outbreak of white spot
virus, which led to white spot disease in farmed prawns. White spot is
like the foot and mouth disease of the prawn. For me, that was quite a
steep learning curve about the virus (in terms of how it works, how the
prawn industry works and the link to recreational fishing), but the
principles are the same: How did the disease get there? How long has it
been there? Where has it spread? What are the most effective control
measures? It was hugely fascinating and a great opportunity to work
through something like that.

What key skills and experience will you be drawing on while CVO in the UK?

While I was in New South Wales, we implemented new legislation – a
biosecurity act that took all the different plant, animal health,
aquatic health and non-native invasive species regulations and made them
into one act. It was about responsibility in terms of biosecurity. That
was quite an interesting way to approach it. The EU legislation has
moved on a lot; there is a new EU animal health law coming out, which is
more risk-based, proportionate and prescriptive. Things like that
present opportunities for what our legislation could and should look
like to achieve the outcomes that we want.

What are your main priorities for this year?

Firstly, never taking our eye off disease control. We’re always
thinking about exotic animal diseases; the ones we’re most concerned
about at the moment are bluetongue virus in France, African swine fever
in eastern Europe and the recently confirmed Newcastle disease in
Belgium. Avian influenza hasn’t been so bad this winter, but in previous
winters it has been, so we’re constantly looking at re-evaluating our
controls around that.

And then of course, in England, there’s the TB issue that we’re
constantly dealing with; we’re five years into our 25-year TB strategy.
The Secretary of State announced a review earlier this year and the
report will be published later. That’s really looking at: we’ve come
five years, what more do we need to do? What further controls will help
us achieve eradication in that timeframe?

Then there is EU Exit, where I’m involved in informing some of the
technical aspects. And antimicrobial resistance – a huge global problem
that the UK has quite a prominent voice on. Our agricultural industry
has done a great job of reducing use of antibiotics by 27 percent in
three years and so I look forward to working with them further on that.

There is also the Veterinary Capability and Capacity Project and, for
me in government, making sure we have enough vets with the right skills
enjoying government work and feeling they are able to make a
difference.

Is the government’s current strategy for controlling bovine TB working?

The evidence we have to date is that the increasing disease level has
reduced. It has plateaued out. There are a number of control methods in
place, including badger culls and increased cattle controls; there are
lots of things going on because it’s a very insidious disease. We aren’t
going to see a sudden drop over months – it’s a disease that must be
managed over a number of years.

How does the government plan to tackle the staffing issues anticipated with EU Exit?

The workload will be dependent on what deal is agreed upon in the end
and decisions about the common rule book and white paper. At the
moment, we’re planning for all eventualities.

Most certificates are about food products that contain animal
products. We are working very closely with APHA and their delivery
partners to map out what those might look like. Although we will not
have a definitive answer until we have the details of a deal, there is a
huge amount of planning underway for the potential outcomes.

We have the Veterinary Capability and Capacity Project, where Defra
is working with the BVA and RCVS. We all recognise that this is such a
significant issue and we need to work together on it.

It links in to some of the other initiatives like Vet Futures, which,
for government, is looking at: what do we need the professional
structure to look like and how many vets do we need? And as a
profession, what do we need it to look like for people to have happy,
successful careers?

Are there plans to incentivise vets to take on more government work?

We have provided some funding to the Royal College in terms of
talking about government roles as opportunities. We know that we have a
problem across the profession of people dropping out and there’s a lot
of work trying to understand why they drop out and what alternative
options there are for them to remain within the profession. Government
works well from that perspective.

Government is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly switched
on to the need for a good work-life balance. Flexible working patterns
are really important to people.

Before I joined, I didn’t have a good perception of what government
work looks like. When you’re in here, and you understand how we make
evidence-based decisions that are informed by risk assessments and
working out what the most appropriate control options are, and how we
provide advice to ministers and stakeholders on those, it’s really
fulfilling.

For me, it’s like doing the complex problem solving you do in practice, but on a national herd level.

What opportunities do you think EU Exit will bring for the profession?

Our role as vets in the evidence base and supporting decision making
has become much more apparent. There is a huge opportunity for us,
including to be stronger in talking about the role we have in food
safety, food security and antimicrobial resistance. Vets know and trust
the profession and farmers listen to them.

I don’t see vets in practice in one box, vets in government in
another and people doing food safety work somewhere else. We’re all on
that continuum; we’re all there about the assurance and verification of
the products we’re producing – be it for our UK consumers or those
elsewhere in the world. There’s huge opportunity in how we use our
expertise to support animal health and welfare.