UK veterinarians stretched as Brexit bites

Drop in EU registrants exacerbates pandemic pressures, particularly in food sector

Published: March 31, 2022
Photo by Sue Oliver
This trio of Lincoln Reds is part of a herd kept by Jamie Quinn, an English farmer. Quinn has struggled to obtain health care for his animals in light of a veterinary workforce crunch in his part of the country.

Jamie Quinn is an accomplished veteran, having spent 20 years serving in Britain's Royal Air Force. But what the airman-turned-farmer really needed on a recent warm summer night was an accomplished veterinarian.

A pedigreed Lincoln Red cow on Quinn's property near Scunthorpe, England, in the eastern county of Lincolnshire, was having difficulty giving birth. "We were using the calving jack, but the calf just wasn't coming," he said, referring to a tool used to assist in deliveries.

Quinn's local veterinary practice had recently shut its doors, so he turned to a neighbor for help. "Basically, it was just two farmers and my partner," he said. "We managed to get the calf out ourselves, but it was very stressful, to say the least."

Other incidents haven't ended so well: Quinn has lost several animals in the past two years because a veterinarian couldn't come on time, including a calf during birth and an adult cow suffering from bloat. Another bloat case was "touch and go," as the practitioner available at the time had only ever treated the condition in horses. "She'd never actually done the puncture procedure on a cow, so I was literally holding the mobile phone for her, whilst a vet on the other end explained what to do."

Quinn's struggles come as professional bodies such as the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association assert that the United Kingdom is experiencing an acute shortage of veterinarians.

In brief

Reports of labor deficits have been on the rise in countries around the world, as the Covid-19 pandemic upped demand for pet care while short-staffed clinics struggled to implement social-distancing protocols. In the U.K., those pressures have been exacerbated by the country's recent exit from the European Union, in a process known as Brexit. The split, officially enacted on Feb. 1, 2020, has made it harder for veterinarians born on the European mainland to live and work in the U.K.

The effect of Brexit on the veterinary profession has been contemplated for years. Now, more solid data is emerging on what that impact is — and it appears substantial. RCVS figures show the number of EU veterinarians newly registering to work in the U.K. plunged from 1,132 in 2019 to 364 in 2021, a drop of 68%.

"When you lose over two-thirds of our registrants from the EU — and in previous years they've made up roughly 40-odd-percent of [new] people who've registered overall — it's making a big difference to the number of people we've got around," BVA senior vice president Dr. James Russell said in an interview.

Overall, the number of veterinarians practicing in the U.K. is 27,788, a rise from 25,870 on March 31, 2019, in part reflecting graduates of domestic programs joining the profession. At the same time, the drop in EU registrants has driven a significant decline in the overall number of new joiners, which slumped from 2,782 in 2019 to 2,061 in 2021, following steady rises from 2013 to 2018. The RCVS maintains that even though overall veterinarian numbers in the U.K are rising, the size of annual increases has shrunk to the point where they can't keep pace with demand.

Staff shortages are being reported anecdotally among all types of practice, though the problem appears most pronounced in the farming sector, which long has struggled to attract graduates often lured by better pay to treat companion animals in big cities.

Practitioners who offer meat-hygiene services are in especially short supply: EU registrants, Russell confirmed, made up about 95% of practitioners working in British slaughterhouses before Brexit. Moreover, livestock exporters now have to fill out more paperwork, signed by a veterinarian, to comply with new trading rules, creating even more demand for veterinary services.

The situation is nuanced, though, with shortages seemingly more pronounced in certain locations. For instance, counties in eastern England, such as Lincolnshire and Norfolk, appear to be experiencing a need for more farm veterinarians, as are parts of the Scottish Highlands and some remote Scottish islands, Russell said.

Farm practice closures leave animals without care

Dr. Molly McKay, a farm veterinarian based in eastern Lincolnshire, England's second-biggest county, tells of working long hours and still not being able to help all of the farmers who need her. A labor squeeze in her area worsened in 2020 when the corporate consolidator VetPartners closed two dedicated farm-animal practices — one in Louth, Lincolnshire, and one in King's Lynn, Norfolk. A spokeswoman for VetPartners, which assumed ownership of the practices through an acquisition in 2018 of Westpoint Farm Vets, declined to comment on the closures.

"In the area we're in, there's a pocket to the north of us and pocket to the south of us where there has been no veterinary cover," McKay said. "And we have been called out-of-hours by clients that are not ours who have been in a muddle because their vet practice has closed down."

Among McKay's regular stops is a 382-cow dairy farm near Hemswell Cliff, Lincolnshire. Its manager, Dirk Simpson, said the farm gets veterinary visits weekly. "We're actually quite lucky," Simpson said. "Most of the time they're able to deal with us, but I know of other farmers who have issues because they can't get a vet when they need one."

Simpson said that on occasion, McKay will be late because her practice is short-staffed and she's been called to an emergency elsewhere. He takes it in stride. "Everybody would accept that happens sometimes, and we'd expect the same back," he said. "It disrupts the day but we just cope with it."

Simpson is fortunate to have experienced farmers on his property who have worked with cattle for 20 to 30 years and can handle some emergency situations themselves.

Photo by Sue Oliver
One of the purposes of Quinn's farming endeavor is to educate schoolchildren and to provide therapy for veterans like him who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

By contrast, Quinn, 14 miles to the north, has been farming only since 2017, having set up his property to help him deal with post-traumatic stress disorder following his military service. Now, his property, with its 43 cattle and 11 rare-breed Lincoln Longwool sheep, is used as a therapy farm by other veterans suffering from PTSD. He also runs a small educational farm for primary school children in Scunthorpe. Quinn is one of the more desperate clients — and now a thankful one — whom McKay recently stretched to take on.

A farmer on the other side of the country tells a different story. Richard Blackburn hasn't had any problems finding a veterinarian for his 400-cow dairy in the western county of Cheshire. The reason, he posits, is that there are more animals around to support veterinary businesses. "Cheshire has one of the largest densities of farm animals in England," he said. "The practices we have in our county and surrounding counties, they've predominantly become large animal practices."

McKay and the BVA's Russell agree that a shortage of farm veterinarians is likely more pronounced on England's east coast because it has a lower density of animals. "Practices have a much larger geographic area to cover," McKay explained. "So I can see that a corporate might not see the scope to put a new practice in our area."

As for her own practice, McKay is down a full-time veterinarian, with two rather than a preferred three. "Additional vets are few and far between at the moment," she said, adding to clarify, "There is a significant shortage of experienced vets. It would be wrong to say there are no graduates out there — there are."

Companion animal practices also struggle to fill vacancies

Although pockets of Britain's food-animal sector appear to be enduring greater effects from Brexit, pet owners also are feeling the pinch.

Clients of a companion animal practice in the eastern English county of Cumbria, for instance, recently were told that it was ending after-hours emergency services at branches in Barrow and Ulverston. Now, clients are advised to take their animals to the nearest emergency clinic, which is more than 40 miles away in Canforth.

IVC Evidensia, the corporate consolidator that owns the Cumbria business, confirmed to the VIN News Service that some of its practices are experiencing staffing difficulties. Several other practices owned by the company, in places such as Birmingham, Bristol, Southhampton and Westgate, mention recent branch closures on their respective websites, directing clients to seek care elsewhere.

"A global shortage of trained veterinary professionals, along with a significant increase in pandemic pet ownership, has put serious strains on teams across the U.K. including at some of our sites," the company said in an emailed statement provided by their public relations contractor. IVC Evidensia declined to detail how many practices it has closed in the past two years and how many it's added.

Another large British corporate consolidator, CVS Group, announced last week in a market filing that its average veterinarian vacancy rate — a measure of how many positions are open in the company — in the eight months ending Feb. 28 had risen to 10.3%, up from 7.5% during the same period a year earlier. Apparently undeterred, CVS Group said it is building a new referral hospital in Bristol and has identified 10 possible locations in the U.K. for new companion animal practices.

Independently owned practices also are struggling to find talent, at least in the experience of Dr. Martin Whitehead, clinical director of a companion animal practice in Chipping Norton, England. The practice closed two branches last year, citing staff shortages.

Whitehead said both branches were small "lock-ups," each comprised of a consultation room and a waiting room, where a veterinarian would spend an hour or two each day. "It was a real shame, as both of those branches had been running 30 years or more and, while they were only a small part of our business, they were making money and 'extended' our geographical range," he said via email.

Whitehead also is short of veterinarians at his main hospital, having unsuccessfully attempted for a year to recruit new staff. "We can get new graduate vets, but we need more experienced vets and are failing on that," he said. "It is really tough to recruit vets … and that is causing massive salary inflation" for veterinarians.

The average U.K. veterinarian salary in 2021 rose 7% to £48,325 (US$63,538), while the average hourly rate for relief veterinarians, also called locums, surged 36% to £41 (US$54), according to 1,164 practitioners surveyed by the Society of Practicing Veterinary Surgeons, a professional association.

Immediate hopes rest on retention, preventive care, Covid decline

Veterinary schools gradually have been upping their student intakes, while the opening of a new veterinary school in 2014 at the University of Surrey started boosting graduate numbers from 2019. (In the U.K., veterinary medicine is a five-year undergraduate program).

Given the five years needed to complete veterinary school, the flow of graduates is set to jump again in a few more years, following the opening in 2020 of Harper Keele Veterinary School in England and a decision in 2019 by the University of Nottingham's veterinary school to double its annual intake. Three other veterinary schools — one each in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland — are in planning stage, with at least two promising to focus on the farming sector.

In the meantime, the BVA is attempting to help practices retain the experienced staff they already have. To that end, the association in September 2020 launched a "good veterinary workplaces voluntary code," with 64 recommendations to improve workplace conditions in the areas of health, well-being, diversity, equality, workload and flexibility.

Russell also hopes that a recent decline in severe Covid cases and the associated easing of pandemic restrictions will lighten pressure on veterinary teams while emboldening veterinarians overseas to apply to work in the U.K.

Meanwhile, to assist the farming sector, the British government last month announced that it would provide a subsidy to cattle, sheep and pig farmers to pay for a yearly visit from a veterinarian of their choice. The payments, to start later this year, will be £684 (US$899) for pigs, £436 (US$573) for sheep, £522 (US$686) for beef cattle and £372 (US$489) for dairy cattle.

Russell welcomed the move, at the same time acknowledging that it may put still greater demands on veterinarians' time. McKay, the stretched practitioner in Lincolnshire, is confident her practice can handle the subsidy since it already makes yearly health-planning visits to clients. She hopes the payments may even alleviate pressure on veterinarians by giving farmers more scope to improve preventive care, say, by improving animal nutrition or conducting more pelvimetry (which involves calculating, based on pelvis size, which heifers are more able to calve without aid).

McKay also said she has noticed and welcomes a greater push to give veterinary technicians in the U.K. more responsibility on farms by allowing them to perform less-difficult tasks usually handled by veterinarians, such as removing calves' horn buds.

Longer-term, McKay, alongside farmers such as Simpson and Quinn, would like to see schools take a different approach to student selection, placing less emphasis on grades and more emphasis on applicants' passion for working in rural communities.

Simpson, for instance, said he knows of a young woman who, while highly intelligent, didn't quite achieve the highest math grades. "But she's the kind of person who absolutely should be a farm vet," he said.

Similarly, Quinn, recently hosting two veterinary students at his farm, was disappointed to hear that they wanted to work in equine or companion animal practice. "I thought, why am I spending time showing you how to be around cattle and sheep, when basically all you want to do is separate a cat from its knackers," he quipped, referring to castration. "It's not helping farmers here."

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