In an oral evidence session with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee on 13 June, Gove said that Defra was exploring whether non-vets would be able to sign export health certificates to cope with increased demand post-Brexit, and stated:
“It is also the case that other countries have people who are skilled and valuable who fulfil a vet med function, but who are not trained to the same level. That is one of the reasons, for example, that in our abattoirs we often have people from other countries who do a great job, but who do not necessarily have the same level of qualification as full-dress vets here.”
The BVA said it had previously highlighted the fact that around 95% of veterinary surgeons working in UK abattoirs are from elsewhere in the EU, and that around 20-30% of the total UK workforce is from overseas, mostly the EU.
It said all of these vets were fully trained and registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the veterinary regulator. Those working in abattoirs had also undertaken additional qualifications to become an Official Veterinarian (OV) which enabled them to carry out this specialised work on behalf of the Government.
John Fishwick, BVA president, said: “The UK workforce is heavily reliant on the skills of our veterinary colleagues who qualified in the EU. Without them the public health and meat hygiene sector would grind to a halt.
“Mr Gove’s comments to Efra Committee are incorrect and insulting to EU vets who are highly qualified for the roles they undertake. We are asking him to retract these comments to demonstrate that the UK Government recognises the value of the whole veterinary profession in the UK, not just those who qualified here.
“We are facing a veterinary workforce shortage and need to retain colleagues across all areas of the profession, including public health-critical roles that ensure our meat and dairy products are safe and provide the UK with a thriving export trade.”
Regarding non-vets undertaking export certification, Fishwick added: “Official Veterinarians are best placed to carry out the vital role of ensuring high standards are upheld across the food supply chain. Putting this specialist work into less qualified hands undermines the OVs’ expertise and could leave the supply chain at increased risk of food fraud and welfare breaches at a time when maintaining high consumer confidence in UK produce has never been more important.
“Far from boosting trade, the idea would fall at the first hurdle in many countries that insist on exports being certified by a veterinary surgeon because they recognise the value of veterinary certification.”
In response to the BVA, Defra said: “Animal welfare will always be a priority and never be compromised. The Secretary of State wasn’t saying, and doesn’t believe, that vets from the EU are less qualified than those from the UK. He was pointing out the fact that there are other people who are currently carrying out roles, such as meat hygiene inspectors, who are not qualified vets but nonetheless do a fantastic job and have a continuing role to play in the future. There’s no proposal for veterinary export health certificates to be signed off by anyone other than a fully qualified vet.”