With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increasing rapidly on a daily basis, the UK government has been forced to take extraordinary measures in an attempt to slow down the spread of this viral pandemic. The general public have been instructed to remain at home and avoid all unnecessary social contact. This includes working from home wherever possible; however for certain key professions this is not possible. 

What is a key worker?

Key workers are those whose jobs are critical for protecting public health and safety during the outbreak. The sectors include:

  • Health and social care
  • Education and childcare
  • Key public services
  • Local and national government
  • Food and other necessary goods
  • Public safety and national security
  • Transport
  • Utilities, communication and financial services

Many of these people will be able to work remotely during this crisis, but others provide essential services that can only be delivered in person. Examples of this include frontline NHS staff and delivery drivers. 

Are veterinary surgeons classified as key workers?

Upon entry to the profession, all vets in the UK make the following declaration:

I PROMISE AND SOLEMNLY DECLARE that I will pursue the work of my profession with integrity and accept my responsibilities to the public, my clients, the profession and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and that, ABOVE ALL, my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care.

As such, they are dedicated to safeguarding animal welfare at all times. However, preserving human health is of paramount importance, so currently they are only providing emergency care and urgent treatment for non-production animal patients. These are generally cases in which there is an immediate threat to life or significant welfare issue, with a high risk of sudden deterioration. 

What are production animals and why are they so different?

Production animals produce animal products, generally for human consumption. Most commonly in the UK these are cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. Often, they have been selectively bred over many years in order to maximise the efficiency at which they yield foods such as milk, cheese, beef, lamb, pork and eggs. Production animal vets play an integral role in keeping these animals performing at their best. Consequently, a lot of their work is essential for maintaining the future food supply chain. 

What efforts are being made to minimise the number of farm visits?

There are several key areas which can be carried out remotely such as:

  • Herd health discussions
  • Disease investigations using data previously collected on farm
  • Report writing for farmers and farm assurance schemes

Much of this would previously have been conducted on farms but can now be done via phone, email or video conferencing between farmers and vets. 

Other cases can be assessed remotely in the first instance and then visits carried out only if deemed necessary:

  • Individual sick animals
  • Post-operative check-ups 
  • Mild disease outbreaks

In order to minimise social contact, medicines may be prescribed remotely for straightforward cases. Farmers can collect samples themselves for laboratory analysis in some circumstances, for instance faeces in a cow with diarrhoea. 

What cases would require a vet to visit a farm?

There are certain tasks for which a vet must attend a farm on animal welfare grounds, including:

  • Surgical cases
  • Critically ill animals
  • Dystocia (difficulty in giving birth)
  • Emergency slaughter of injured animals

In addition, there is other work that is essential for protecting public health and maintaining the food chain:

  • Fertility – many female production animals must become pregnant at regular intervals. This ensures a consistent supply of animals which can be slaughtered for meat. Dairy cows must have approximately one calf per year in order to continue producing the milk we require. 
  • Disease surveillance – all cattle in the UK must be tested regularly for bovine tuberculosis, in order to support the government’s efforts to eradicate the disease.
  • Slaughterhouses – it is a requirement for a vet to be present in abattoirs whilst animals are being slaughtered, in order to enforce animal welfare and food hygiene standards. 

What are production animal vets doing to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19?

There are a number of steps being taken by vets to reduce the risk of them either contracting or spreading the disease:

  • Maintaining a minimum 2-metre gap between themselves and clients at all times
  • Contacting farmers only by phone if there is any risk that someone on the premises has COVID-19 and attending in pairs in these cases to avoid having to meet any farm staff
  • Cleaning internal car surfaces after leaving farms
  • Avoiding entering farmhouses without exception

In these troubling times, the government advice to go home and stay home is the best way to minimise the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the chance of the NHS becoming overwhelmed. Rest assured, vets are also doing their bit to ensure the UK remains a world leader in animal welfare standards and that the supply of food from farm to fork continues uninterrupted.