Following further restrictions confirmed today by the Cabinet Office about the status of veterinary surgeons in England as critical workers for the purposes of securing childcare in schools, the RCVS, British Veterinary Association (BVA) and the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) have issued a joint statement to veterinary professionals in England.
In light of the worsening pandemic situation currently in evidence across the UK, the UK government has said that only children of critical/key workers and vulnerable children and young people should attend school or college. All other pupils and students will receive remote education.
Critical worker status tightened
The UK government defines critical workers as those whose work is critical either to the national coronavirus response, or to the EU transition response. Even those critical workers who are eligible to access the childcare provision are asked by government to only do so if absolutely necessary. The government’s overall aim is to have as few children and teachers in school as possible, so provision for places has been defined and strictly limited in the context of the pandemic.
As such, and with regard to veterinary professionals practising in England, the Cabinet Office has today confirmed that only veterinary surgeons working in food supply are to be classed as critical workers in England for the purposes of securing childcare in schools, ie veterinary surgeons working in abattoirs and meat processing plants, at border control posts, and attending to livestock production.
Unfortunately, the previously agreed dispensation for veterinary surgeons involved in the provision of emergency care is no longer in place, which we understand is a direct reflection of the severity of the infection rate in evidence across England in particular, and the acute pressure on schools.
We fully understand that this will cause a great deal of anxiety amongst veterinary professionals with children who currently face the significant challenge of balancing their professional and parental responsibilities, and the knock-on effect this may have on other colleagues in the veterinary team. We also realise that this may cause greater difficulties for practices in rural areas and those with smaller teams.
As things stand, under the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct, veterinary surgeons have an ongoing professional responsibility to take steps to provide 24-hour emergency first aid and pain relief to animals according to their skills and the specific situation.
Whilst emergency care provision (either directly or by arrangement with third parties) remains an obligation, we would remind vets that all other veterinary work should be triaged based on animal health and welfare needs, the availability of the necessary team resources, and, most importantly, any impact it may have on public health, ie the health of your colleagues and your clients.
Not business as usual
In particular, we cannot state strongly enough to veterinary employers that business should not be continuing as usual under these worsening pandemic circumstances. RCVS and BVA guidance allows for non-emergency work that is essential for animal health and welfare now, or in the timeframe of the lockdown, to continue, but there is no obligation that this work must be carried out.
We urge the professions to continue to play their part in helping to limit the spread of the virus, especially in light of a new more transmissible strain, by making responsible decisions on what veterinary work to continue.
We would also remind veterinary surgeons that critical/key worker status should be agreed at local level with the school/local authority as appropriate, and that they should be confident that their claims are defensible.
In light of this more restrictive critical/keyworker definition, we anticipate that practices will need to critically assess their workloads and ways of working. We are asking the professions to consider the following BVA advice and guidance to support colleagues with caring responsibilities:
- Flexible working – support colleagues to work from home and/or adjust rotas to support more flexible working patterns.
- Furlough – consider the use of furlough for caring purposes.
- Leave – where possible support requests for annual leave or unpaid leave to assist with caring responsibilities.
- Support mental health and wellbeing – employers should be aware of the importance of supporting all employees’ mental health and wellbeing at times of change and uncertainty.
- Work together to ensure provision of veterinary services in local areas – we continue to urge neighbouring practices to work together to ensure full geographical cover for emergency veterinary services, for example, where a practice is struggling to cover the rota due to staff self-isolating. We are asking practices, at these difficult times, to put aside commercial interests to support one another, including encouraging the retention of clients by their original practices.
Whether you are eligible for key/critical worker status or not, the following information on other support options may be helpful:
- Childcare bubbles – in addition to a support bubble you can now form a childcare bubble with one other household for informal childcare. This is a new provision that is different to the rules during the March 2020 lockdown.
- Other childcare options – childminding services, early years settings, and in-home childcare providers, such as nannies, are available for the time being. Check locally for detailed information.
Guidance on critical/key worker status for veterinary professionals in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remains unchanged, and is available on the RCVS website.