A joint statement issued by the RCVS and the BVA with updated guidance for the professions about working during the coronavirus pandemic has led to an outcry on social media and highlighted flaws in the structure of the veterinary profession. 

Earlier this month, the government had exempted veterinary surgeries from the requirement to close their doors during the pandemic. Strictly speaking, the exemption meant that practices could carry on offering the same level of service as before, provided they followed further government guidelines on social distancing.

However, the College then advised that non-essential treatments should not be carried out until further notice, and that animals should only be seen in emergency, or if their health was likely to deteriorate as a result of inaction.

This included vaccination, where RCVS advice stated that whilst routine vaccinations were considered not urgent, there "may be scenarios where, in your professional judgement, vaccines are being given to reduce a real and imminent risk of disease; this includes in the face of an animal disease outbreak, or in a scenario where part of a vaccine course has been given and the animal may be exposed to the disease." 

The updated College guidelines, issued last Thursday evening, appeared little changed, except to say that its advice concerning vaccinations is under review. Meanwhile, its new flowchart gives a very clear framework for veterinary professionals to work within, essentially leaving it to your own professional judgement to weigh up the risks.

However, the BVA went further, declaring amongst other things, that:

Vaccinations – we are now recommending that primary vaccinations and year 1 boosters in dogs and cats go ahead due to the increased risk of disease outbreak over a longer period of time, and annual leptospirosis vaccination due to the zoonotic risk. If additional component of the core vaccine is due at the same time, it should also be administered. In addition, we’re recommending rabbit vaccinations go ahead due to the seasonal disease risks. Rabies vaccinations should be carried out if required for certification reasons

.... leading to an outcry that the BVA's advice appeared to be being relaxed at precisely the point when the government is imploring the public to stay at home, and that:

  • it must have been the result of pressure from corporate veterinary businesses which are taking a severe financial hit from the loss of vaccination sales,
  • that it would lead to veterinary surgeons being forced by their (probably corporate) employers to work when they believe it is wrong to do so,
  • that it would put unnecessary strain on practices that are struggling to look after urgent case with reduced staff,
  • that it would lead to pressure from the public to carry out non-essential vaccinations,
  • that it would cause Vesuvius to erupt and the oceans to boil.

To add further fuel to the flames, the British Small Animal Veterinary Association then issued a statement to the effect that it had not been consulted during the preparation of the new BVA guidelines, which BVA past President Robin Hargreaves felt was so economical with the truth that he resigned his BSAVA membership on the spot.

At the end of it all, there is but one simple truth for every veterinary surgeon who is working in these difficult times, and it is this: The government and the RCVS guidance gives you the freedom to exercise your professional judgement concerning whether or not an animal needs to be seen for whatever reason. Provided you can explain why you reasonably concluded that an animal should or should not be seen, that is all that matters. It trumps everything else.  

This whole farago has highlighted a number of important issues in the profession, starting with the social media conspiracy theories that the new guidance came after pressure from corporate practices when as far as I can tell, it appears to have been driven by a genuine concern that that failure to vaccinate could cause significant welfare issues in the future.

That seems a reasonable argument, and very much in line with the College advice. But that in turn raises a far bigger question, which is what on earth the BVA (a voluntary membership organisation) was doing issuing what appeared to be instructions ostensibly for all members of the profession. Notwithstanding the fact that BVA recommendations have no legal weight, having all these chefs running around with different recipe books is itself a recipe for muddled communications and confusion over leadership.

In turn, that raises the even bigger question of what the BVA's role should be. Should it be snuggling up in bed with the RCVS, issuing joint edicts? Or should it instead be holding the College to account, challenging its decisions and demanding clarification where clarification is necessary. I would argue the latter. In this situation, the ONLY organisation issuing guidelines about vaccinations for practising vets should be the regulator. And it is the role of the BVA to challenge those guidelines if necessary, or to demand clarification.

Which leads me on to the next thing, which is that increasingly, members of the profession seem to demand explicit rules or guidelines to operate within. There are lots of hypotheses for why this might be true. Perhaps because we live in a more (or seemingly more) litigious world and veterinary professionals like the reassurance rules provide. Perhaps it is because the younger cohort of vets lack the self-confidence needed for decision-making. Perhaps corporatisation has a part to play, in that employees of larger organisations tend to play more by the rules. Or perhaps it is a consequence of the growth in the 'refer everything’ culture which means vets take fewer clinical risks.  

Whatever the reason, it seems clear that in some cases, the RCVS tack of "you're a professional, decide for yourself" is perfectly reasonable, whereas on other occasions, such as Schedule 3, more explicit guidelines are demonstrably necessary. Once again, surely the role of the BVA as the "Voice of the profession” is not to issue its own advice, but to press the College for more explicit guidelines as necessary.

Lastly, there is the role of Facebook in all of this. Quite obviously vets are no more immune to conspiracy theories than members of the public who think that coronavirus is spread by 5G telephone masts. Sadly, the truth is usually far less exciting. However, the problem at the moment is that the growth in social media and Facebook groups has left the regulator and the representative associations on the back foot, such that it is often left to individuals from those organisations who 'happen to come across OK online' (rather than having any properly defined role) to firefight.

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