Written evidence submitted by Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (LS0009)
Labour shortages in the food and farming sector
Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons
- The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is the statutory regulator for veterinary surgeons, responsible for the registration of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses in the UK. The role of the RCVS is to safeguard the health and welfare of animals committed to veterinary care through the regulation of the educational, ethical and clinical standards of veterinary surgeons and nurses. It also acts as an impartial source of informed opinion on relevant veterinary matters.
- As a regulatory body, the RCVS will limit its comments to those areas where there are clear indications of relevance to the College’s role and where policy may require the UK government, the veterinary profession or the public to seek assistance from the College.
1) What is the extent and nature of labour shortages currently being experienced in the food supply chain?
- The veterinary profession is integral to the protection of animal health, animal welfare and public health, as part of this vets are essential to the food supply chain. Farm animal vets and Official Veterinarians (OVs) help to maintain food standards, safety and security through certification and inspection. Veterinary surgeons are crucial in helping to prevent and control diseases that could threaten the food chain. Their work is key to provide those in the agri-food business and consumers within the UK and abroad with assurance.
- There is currently a shortage of veterinary professionals in the UK, and this shortage has been exacerbated following additional demands placed on the workforce following Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.
- In November 2018, The Major Employers Group which represents some of the largest UK veterinary businesses and charities providing primary care directly to the public’s animals conducted a survey which revealed that there were 890 vacancies in member practices employing over 7,700 veterinary surgeons, representing a veterinary workforce shortage of approximately 11.5%. We are aware that this shortage is not exclusive to those working in primary care and is a sector wide concern, including within the food and farming sector.
2) What are the factors driving labour shortages in the food supply chain?
- As previously stated, the UK’s exit from the European Union has had a significant impact on the veterinary workforce. Vets play a key role in ensuring that animals are slaughtered humanely, and it is a legal requirement for slaughterhouses to have vets present to protect animal health, welfare and to ensure compliance with legislation. These vets work to maintain public trust and confidence in food production. Our register data reveals that the veterinary profession is heavily reliant on overseas graduates; up to 60% of vets registering in recent years graduated overseas. Many of those qualified in the European Union, with a peak of more than 50% of vets registered in the UK in 2018 having qualified in the EU (outside of the UK).
- As of 24 September 2021, there were 299 vets from the EU admitted onto our register (18% of new registrants) and although this is not the final figure for 2021, it indicates that the number of EU qualified vets coming to work in the UK is dropping as the decade-long growth in EU registrations flatlined after the EU referendum and were down by c.50% in 2020.
- Following the UK’s exit from the EU, there has been an increase in the need for members of the veterinary profession working in the food sector. Vets are needed to facilitate the new certification required for the export of products of animal origin, animals, and pet travel. Exporters now require an Export Health Certificate (EHC) to be signed by a vet to transport animals and products of animal origin to the EU. Government estimates have varied between a 325-500% increase in the need for this veterinary certification. This increase in demand is putting further strain on an already limited capacity of vets.
- Key to this shortage is the trend that UK veterinary graduates tend to favour clinical practice over public health and food safety roles. Of those vets who work in public health, over 95% of them qualified in the EU, revealing the importance of EU qualified vets to our food supply chain.
3) What is the outlook for the labour shortage situation in the coming months and years?
- The veterinary workforce shortage has been a concern for industry and government prior to the UK voting to leave the EU. We anticipate that the labour shortage will continue unless there is a holistic, long-term approach taken to address the problems faced within the sector. This approach must be a coalition of government, industry, educators and various other stakeholders to ensure that the veterinary workforce can continue to ensure our food chain is resilient, whilst maintaining high standards of animal welfare and food safety, with public health at its core.
- We are taking the issues in recruitment, retention and return to work within the veterinary sector, very seriously. In order to gain a deeper understanding of this, we are currently undertaking a significant research project and will be engaging with sector stakeholders to inform our research.
4) What impact will the timetable for introducing physical checks at the border on food and live animal imports from the EU have on the current issues being experienced by the UK food supply chain?
- We are aware that phytosanitary certificates and physical checks on sanitary and phytosanitary goods at border control posts have now been pushed back to 1 July 2022. It is important to state that any increase in the need for veterinary certification will increase the demand for veterinary services.
5) What measures has the Government taken to alleviate the problems being faced by the food supply chain this year? To what extent have they been successful?
- In March 2021, Defra asked the RCVS Council to amend temporary registration rules for 12 months to allow temporary registrants to carry out official veterinarian work in slaughterhouses. This was introduced in June 2021, following RCVS approval. The temporary register is to be used sparingly and where there is a genuine and urgent need.
- It is important to note that this is not a long-term fix to the shortages of vets in slaughterhouses who are essential to the food supply chain. We believe that more needs to be done in order to address the wider issues facing the veterinary workforce, which negatively impacts on the food supply chain.
6) Does the Government need to take further steps to support the food supply chain?
- To ensure that veterinary capacity can meet demand within the food supply chain, we would recommend that in the short term it could be necessary to introduce incentives such as higher salaries and student debt forgiveness to encourage vets already on the UK Register to undertake official veterinarian work and food hygiene work.
- In the longer-term the number of UK veterinary graduates will need to increase, and in order to achieve this additional government investment in veterinary education will be necessary. This would allow UK veterinary schools to sufficiently increase the number of graduates to address the critical workforce shortage and to ensure that veterinary medicine courses can run sustainably. This investment would be directed at increasing course capacity, infrastructure, staffing, and for other costs such as student support.
- It is important to note that increasing veterinary capacity also takes time and personnel. It takes many years to train veterinarians, a full-time veterinary degree usually takes five years, six years from the University of Cambridge. We do expect some growth in veterinary graduate numbers in the next few years due to the opening of new veterinary schools such as the joint venture by Harper Adams University and Keele University and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN). However, this is not a quick solution as UCLAN does not plan to admit students until 2023 and even then, to boost domestic graduate numbers will take several years. This means that the UK may be reliant on non-UK qualifying veterinary surgeons for some years.
- As an interim measure, the RCVS will continue to recognise the degrees of vets who qualified from schools approved or accredited by the European Association of Establishments for Veterinary Education (EAEVE) – approximately 85% of those who could register before. Those individuals who do not have recognised degrees can sit the RCVS Statutory Examination and register that way. We are investigating alternatives for the future, such as the direct accreditation of European vet schools, or forming Mutual Recognition Agreements with EU Member States.
- EAEVE also approve or accredit schools outside of the EU, such as Turkey and Japan, and graduates of those schools are now eligible to register in the UK. Under EU legislation we were not allowed to enforce minimum standards of English language ability for EU graduates, providing we did not have ‘serious and concrete doubts’ about their ability to communicate in English; i.e. they could not understand or be understood at their registration interview. We can no longer discriminate in favour of European vets, so they are also subject to the same language requirements as applicants from other non-English speaking countries – IELTS Level 7 or the Occupational English Test (OET) Level B, unless they are carrying out OV work and are on our temporary register under the amended rules which were introduced in June 2021 as previously stated. This standard of English language ability is equivalent to other professions such as doctors and dentists.
- Following an extensive four-year review of the legislation that governs the veterinary professions, we recently submitted recommendations to Defra on our vision for future veterinary legislation which we believe could help to address workforce capacity issues. The legislation we envisage will be more akin to a ‘veterinary services act’, encompassing members of the veterinary team beyond veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, potentially increasing the opportunities for delegation by veterinary surgeons. This would underpin and assure their professional standards in the interest of the public and animal health and welfare, and increase opportunities for veterinary nurses and other allied professionals. Our recommendations will encourage professional growth and development, offering careers with more versatility and diversity for the professions.