There has been much reflection on issues facing the veterinary profession following the Brexit vote; now with just six months to go, discussions about Brexit and the equine sector generally represent a shared vision.
The panel of speakers for the BEVA Congress session on adapting to changing times included representatives from the government, BEVA, RCVS, World Horse Welfare and veterinary education institutions. Though the focus of each talk was different, the overall assessment of challenges and opportunities for the profession was aligned, coupled with a ubiquitous call for equine vets to embrace change and, in the words of David Mountford, “be a Netflix, not a Blockbuster”.
Angela Smith, MP for Penistone and Stockbridge, opened the session with a valuable summary of where the profession stands. If Brexit agreements are settled towards the “hard end”, which would require the resurrection of borders between the UK and EU states, there will be numerous challenges.
Across all 25 of the government’s no-deal technical notices, Angela noted that trade in live animals was given only a courtesy mention, with a pledge “to intensify its engagement and cooperation with the EU to enable the continued exportation of live animals and animal products”.
With a no-deal Brexit, border inspection posts would run a significant risk of increasing journey times for horses. “This is particularly a problem as far as Ireland is involved,” Angela said. “Can we really be comfortable with the knowledge that the resurrection of the border could lead to decisions to transport equine livestock by sea to the European mainland rather than the shorter, easier journey over the UK mainland?”
She listed other areas that may be impacted, such as: equine passports, regulations relating to traceability and standards required for transporting horses across borders, the availability of veterinary medicines and the UK’s veterinary capacity. The demand for vets would be immediate, she said, emphasising that vets would need to be on the shortage occupation list and an increase in funding for UK vet schools would be required.
Brexit may also present opportunities; Angela was keen on the idea of creating a new inspection regime, utilising border checks to increase standards for welfare and biosecurity. The potential to ban the export of live animals for slaughter has also been discussed, but this is a complex issue. “In some cases, the distances travelled [to a slaughterhouse] here at home will be greater than those crossing borders,” Angela explained, stressing that there are no equine slaughterhouses in Northern Ireland.
Graeme Cooke, the UK’s Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer, provided a perspective from Defra, conferring some of the changes that are in the pipeline. The Central Equine Database, launched in March 2018, logs all domesticated horses and allows for improved tracking; this, Graeme said, is the beginnings of a better system, which will be used to track the movement of horses from a disease control point of view.
The intention is to have all horses retrospectively microchipped by 2020. Enforcement is being improved, and will incorporate compliance notices, an easier fines system and a better recovery of costs, he said. The EU Animal Health Regulation is coming into force in April 2021 and Defra is planning to use that legislation as we move out of the EU, he confirmed.
Graeme described plans to change the way of thinking and increase the number of enablers in surveillance, incorporating private labs as well as government labs. “We’re binding everything together under the UK surveillance forum… to provide a much more agile, responsive, strategic way of thinking,” he explained.
The aim is to have as streamlined an exit as possible, Graeme said. “We are posing… with the assistance of Ireland and France, the adoption of the OIE [World Organisation for Animal Health] High Performance Principle: horses which have high levels of veterinary supervision are maintained on a database and have certain health requirements which mean that they can move much more quickly within the trade system.”
Angela concluded her talk by voicing some of her main worries, which are shared among others in the profession: “the Brexit process may produce a desperate bid for legislative changes that provide a useful positive veneer to what is rapidly materialising as a very negative set of outcomes. Changes that would run a significant risk of being badly thought through and potentially damaging for equine welfare.”