Unifying in the face of crisis - Veterinary Practice
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Unifying in the face of crisis

What is the current advice for ensuring the profession upholds its promise to protect animal health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?

James Russell, Junior Vice President of the BVA

Amidst criticism of the UK government’s response to the pandemic, the veterinary profession continues to pull together to ensure animal health isn’t compromised at this difficult time. I spoke to James Russell, Junior Vice President of the BVA, to find out about the latest developments and advice for veterinary professionals.

The BVA has been urging vets to write to their MPs to help secure financial support for the profession; what have the responses been like so far?

MPs recognise that we are being asked to provide the service crucial to animal welfare and food productivity at a time when we haven’t got the income to pay our staff in a normal way. A lot of locum vets are working as limited companies, which may mean that they’re not in receipt of much of the government’s intended support, if any at all. I’m aware of half a dozen independent practices where the lion’s share of the work is now being done by the owners who are, again, directors of limited companies and are not able to access any of the financial support. We’ve received a number of responses [from MPs] and overwhelmingly they’re supportive – we await to see what comes back out of treasury.

How should practices be responding to news that we might see a shortage of PPE?

If we’re simply taking a cat in a cat basket that’s been left at the door of the surgery to work on, gloves or good handwashing should be perfectly adequate. The times where that’s not going to be adequate are where either we’re forced to work more closely with colleagues or we’re asked to examine animals in homes. The animals are no greater risk than any other surface – it is the aerosol risk from people which we need to give special consideration to. In the first instance, we need to maximise the distance between us and those people. We can be prudent with the PPE we use without increasing the risk to any of our members.

What are the One Health implications of the outbreak? Are there any other ways vets could be using their skillsets to help tackle the pandemic?

The BVA is calling for people, first and foremost, to use their veterinary skills to help. There are potential pinch points coming up – with inspectors in slaughterhouses, for example. We need to make sure we can keep the food chain going. We should also consider those jobs that aren’t primarily veterinary jobs, like helping to move livestock on-farm to enable veterinary examinations. We remain ready as a profession if at any point the government asks us to support and engage with other services in a different way.

We’ve helped to promote the call for oxygen and making sure that empty oxygen cylindars go back into the system, and are beginning to think about the distribution of ventilators.

More broadly on One Health, I think there is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate unity across our profession and make sure that we maintain animal health and welfare in the face of these challenging times. We can’t forget the role that vets are playing in supporting areas like animal trials of vaccines. There are potentially underutilised resources: we’re aware of laboratories who put themselves forward to help with processing COVID testing and as yet we don’t believe the offers have been taken up by government.

How is the farm vet sector coping?

Animals can behave as a surface for the virus to live on in just the same way as a paper plate or a bottle of milk might, but the animals aren’t actively shedding the virus. So when we’re on-farm, we’re having to change our mindset slightly – we’re very used to thinking about biosecurity and making sure we don’t take an animal disease from one farm to the next, or even spread it on the same farm – now we’re having to extend that thinking to “how do we behave with our farmers to make sure that we minimise any aerosol risk?”

Is it likely that small animal vets will be asked to step in to fill gaps in large animal work?

We’re not aware of those pressures at the moment. The only point we can see that coming down the track is with meat hygiene work. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been a call for people who have previously been meat inspectors but haven’t done it for a few years to re-accredit themselves so they can help in that area.

Is there anything we’ve learnt from the pandemic that could better inform responses to future crises?

It is crucial to make sure we are unified as a profession and that we are supporting people in a consistent and constructive way. Making sure we maintain really positive channels of communication right across the profession is something that we’ve done on the whole very well, but recognise that we can continue to build on.

We also need to recognise that there is a shortage of vets being produced in the country. We rely on regular inputs of vets who aren’t UK-trained, so we need to question how resilient that makes our workforce.

Do you have any advice for practices trying to retain good communications with clients?

Using social media and video messages is a really good way of staying in touch with clients. Melton Vets in Melton Mowbray put up a lovely message to their clients on their Facebook page asking them to be patient with them, saying that they would prioritise the work that needed doing, and asking for clients to recognise that they need to protect themselves as well. They update those clients on what they should expect from them this week, next week and next month, making sure that that dialogue runs open.

How can members of the profession support their colleagues through the challenging weeks ahead?

It’s important to be able to support those in the profession who are doing jobs they aren’t used to doing; for example, vets undertaking a receptionist job to keep things running smoothly. We must make sure that we keep all our chan-nels open as a profession.

Don’t put too much expectation on yourself. It’s a really unusual time. If you’re at home with three kids who need home schooling, please don’t expect yourself to put in eight hours of work as well. We need to be fair on ourselves and accept that we’re working at a slightly different pace than normal.

Vet Life has put out some lovely resources to guide people, including students, people in practice and people put on furlough.

Jennifer Parker

Senior Editor at Veterinary Practice

Jennifer Parker, BSc, PgDip, MSc, is a science writer and editor. She studied zoology, endangered species re-covery and palaeoanthropology in the UK. Jennifer was Senior Editor of Veterinary Practice magazine for almost three years; she left the publication in October 2019 to move abroad and pursue a freelance writing career.

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