In Britain, a shortage of veterinarians brews

Brexit fallout already evident

December 12, 2017 (published)
By Ross Kelly

Dr. Bruno Nicolas
Photo courtesy of Dr. Bruno Nicolas
Ahead of Britain's exit from the European Union, immigrants including Dr. Bruno Nicolas, a veterinarian from Spain, are leaving their jobs in Britain in search of more welcoming environments.

Dr. Bruno Nicolas, a veterinary surgeon from Barcelona, regularly toyed with the idea of moving back to his home country. He’d been treating companion animals at a practice in the English town of Bedford for around two years. He missed his family, friends and the Spanish sunshine.

At the same time, Nicolas still enjoyed Bedford, where he had moved in 2014 to try something new, build on his nine years of clinical experience and brush up on English. Perhaps, he thought, he could stay for another few years.

The events of June 23, 2016, tipped the balance. It was the day the British public decided to leave the European Union in a process known as Brexit (a portmanteau of "Britain" and "exit.")

The Brexit debate — rooted in whether the U.K. should quit the EU's single-market system — has become a vessel for anti-immigration sentiments. Currently, citizens from the EU's 28 participating countries are entitled to work anywhere in the market. Brexit proponents contend that the migration of other Europeans to the U.K. has driven down wages and taken jobs from Britons. Severing ties with the EU would give Britain greater control of its borders and immigration system — although exactly how things pan out is yet to be determined.

In the months that followed the tight vote, Bruno decided it was time to go. “I was worried,” he said. “There was so much uncertainty about what was going to happen to foreigners here.”

Worse, the veterinary surgeon endured xenophobic insults from a small number of his clients. “There is a point where you feel you are not welcome in this country,” he said. He is moving back to Spain next month.

Nicolas is among some 5,000 EU nationals comprising almost a quarter of the British veterinary-surgeon community. Their departure, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) warns, could create a "vacuum."

"If we lost all of our EU veterinary surgeons, we would be in a workforce shortage crisis,” said Gudrun Ravetz, senior vice president of the BVA.

The professional association laid out its position and recommendations on Brexit in a report published in May.

A breakthrough

The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU in March 2019. However, there are doubts the deadline will be met because Brexit is layered in complications. Early progress in negotiations between London and Brussels was announced on Friday. Most importantly for the veterinary community, the two sides pledged to guarantee the permanent residency rights of EU citizens already living in the U.K., and vice versa. The move was welcomed by residents' rights groups, although they warned the agreement wasn't final and expressed concern that any new rules might be reversed later.

Still up for negotiation is how hard it will be for anyone who is not a current resident to move across borders once Brexit is enacted. Also to be determined is whether there should be a transition period, perhaps of a few years, to help individuals and businesses adjust in the event of a so-called hard Brexit. This scenario would involve the U.K. completely exiting the European single market, with the free movement of people dramatically curtailed.

Another important sticking point in talks was resolved Friday: Negotiators decided that Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., should be given special status to prevent the erection of hard physical border with the Republic of Ireland, which isn’t part of the U.K. and would remain part of the EU. The breakthrough was a big relief for the local veterinary profession, given that a large proportion of veterinarians practicing in Northern Ireland were reared south of the border.

Veterinarians’ special vulnerability

Despite Friday’s developments, dozens of industries still face skills shortages in a post-Brexit world, including health care, financial services, manufacturing and hospitality. The veterinary industry could be exposed more than most because it once had a widening skills gap that was plugged, in part, by EU nationals.

The numbers are telling. EU nationals comprise 23 percent of practitioners registered with the U.K.’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). The nationalities of another 17 percent are unknown.

In comparison, Britain’s National Health Service, which gets a lot more press about post-Brexit skills shortages, has an EU-born doctor contingent of 10 percent.

Certain sectors of the veterinary profession are more exposed than others. Ninety-five percent of veterinarians in the British meat-hygiene sector are from overseas, with the vast majority of those hailing from the EU.

Further, around half of all veterinarians currently registering each year in the U.K. are graduates from the EU.

People, not pawns

Anecdotal evidence suggests those EU-born graduates may be rethinking their plans, as Brexit anxiety bites. Their wariness could exacerbate an existing shortage of U.K.-born vets, as the industry struggles to attract enough new blood to replace aging Baby Boomer practitioners.

“Certainly the U.K. graduates seem to have dried up, but the EU nationals have dried up as well,” said John Blackwell, clinical director of a practice on the Wales-Shropshire border.

The practice employs nine vets and is struggling to find a tenth. Two of the crew are EU nationals: one from Romania, the other from Spain.

There could have been a third. A Croatian man who had worked briefly at the clinic was set to relocate from Ireland with his family. That was until Brexit “utterly destabilized him,” Blackwell said.

“He fitted in well. The clients took to him. He liked the area. He said to me one morning [that] he switched the television on and saw that migrants were going to be used in the negotiation process. And he said, ‘I’m not a pawn on a game of chess. I’m a person.’ ”

This sentiment is reflected in the results of a recent RCVS survey of 3,078 EU-born veterinary graduates, which found 32 percent were considering moving back home and 64 percent felt less welcome in the U.K.

A plea for assurance

Blackwell would like to see the veterinary profession put back on the U.K. shortage occupation list, a status it lost in 2011. The BVA is pressing the government to do so, but hasn’t received any promises. Inclusion would make it cheaper and easier for practices to hire foreign veterinarians on a working visa.

Ravetz said the association also would like to see the government provide clearer guidance on future medicines regulations, amid fears some EU-sourced treatments may not be available if rules aren’t harmonized.

Animal welfare also is at stake in a post-Brexit world, and the BVA is asking politicians to enshrine Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty into U.K. law. The treaty is an international agreement that forms the constitutional basis of the EU. Article 13 makes it clear that animals are sentient beings, while putting a duty on the state to pay full regard to animal welfare when implementing and formulating policy.

“As an organization and as a veterinary profession, we’re getting a lot of contact with government,” Ravetz said. “They do see us as evidence-based, they do see us as science-led and they do see us as knowledgeable. We’ve had a lot of warm words. But what we still need is assurance.”

Any such assurance would come too late for Nicolas. While he welcomed Friday’s decision to ensure the residency rights of existing U.K. residents, he isn’t changing his plans, at least not any time soon.

“For the moment, my plans are the same. I need to go home at least to have a break,” he said. “If I don’t find any job and the situation is not bearable, I would reconsider coming back to the U.K. again. We will see.”

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