Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann has warned that major steps need to be taken soon to avoid Northern Ireland heading towards a serious veterinary workforce crisis.
Robin Swann said:
“I recently had the pleasure of hosting the British Veterinary Association at Stormont. That evening however, and in the weeks since, I have been approached by several local vets who are deeply concerned about the unsustainable position that the industry is in.
“The industry is facing a profound recruitment crisis, especially practices in more rural towns and villages which carry out TB testing. I am well aware of practices even in my own constituency of North Antrim which have been advertising vacant posts for months, but with little or no uptake.
“It is just a fact of life that farming doesn’t work to time and many of the callouts are in the middle of the night. Whilst this was accepted as simply part of the job for previous generations of rural vets, it is an expectation that an increasing number of new vets entering the profession are unwilling to meet.
“As a result there has been a steady shift of new graduates preferring to work in practices specialising in small animals, and as a result many of the others are having to deal with growing agricultural demands – including relentless TB testing – with diminishing staff resources. This is a situation which is growing increasingly unsustainable.
“One experienced vet who privately contacted me recently warned that the industry is facing a perfect storm of an ageing workforce nearing retirement, an inevitable increase in workload as a result of Brexit, greater numbers of younger female vets moving to part-time and less unsociable working hours and a large proportion of the vets who had come here from the European continent returning back to their home member states. Whilst any one of these factors would be a problem, all four combined will soon culminate into the biggest workforce crisis local veterinary services have faced in decades.
“If local veterinary practices can’t attract or retain the staff, farmers will soon find that it is increasingly difficult to get a vet into their yard. Agriculture will be the sector most directly hit.
“As a previous Chairman of the Employment Committee at Stormont, I was very interested in a past proposal from the Ulster University to establish a School of Veterinary Medicine at one of their campuses. Importantly they had noted that as a result of the growth of the local agriculture sector the focus of their vet school would be on animal health and welfare, supporting the agri-food industry instead of focusing on domestic animals.
“I will be writing to the Departments at Stormont asking for an urgent update on a veterinary school in Northern Ireland, urging them that this is an issue which requires immediate intervention to avoid a catastrophe in local veterinary services. Training local vets in Northern Ireland wouldn’t immediately fix the problem, but it would go a long way towards it.”