As the UK’s “Lockdown 3.0” continues, in a blow to many veterinary practices, the government has this week (13th January 2021) decided to exclude vets and veterinary nurses from “key worker” status. This might seem a simple administrative decision, of no real relevance – but there are serious implications for animal welfare. As a result, the decision has been highly controversial in the profession.

What is a “key worker”?

“Key worker” – also known as a “critical worker” – is the term used by the government to describe workers or employees whose presence in the workplace is essential to the UK’s fight against the Covid pandemic. Essentially, it is a list of people whose children are entitled to childcare and (limited) in person-schooling. It doesn’t mean that someone without that classification isn’t essential for some other reason – it’s all about who can access childcare without having to home-school.

Why has the decision been made?

There has been increasing concern about the new B117 (“Kent”) variant of coronavirus. In particular, although children are unlikely to be seriously ill with the virus, they may be particularly important in spreading it. As a result, the UK government closed all schools at the beginning of January, to minimise mixing – except for the children of “key workers”.

However, compared to the big spring lockdown, more parents are using “key worker” status to access in-person schooling for their children. Last week, it was reported that attendance is as much as 9 times higher – with some schools seeing 50% of their pupils attending. Under these situations, scientists are concerned that schools will be at high risk of actively spreading the virus – with children taking it home to older and more vulnerable residents. And while new cases seem to have peaked, hospital admissions and deaths are still rising.

The government’s decision to limit key worker status as far as possible is a direct result of this combination of events.

How is this a change?

Until this week, vets providing an emergency service have been considered key workers, as they provide an essential service for animal welfare. However, the new ruling means that only veterinary staff working in the food chain (farm animal vets and export certification workers) are key workers. All vets and nurses working in small animal (pet) or equine practice who have children need to be home-schooling them – either themselves, or as part of a childcare bubble.

How does this impact emergency care?

Here’s the big problem – it doesn’t. Vets are still legally obliged to provide 24 hour emergency care for their patients. Personally, I think this is a good thing – but as the profession is increasingly family-friendly (which is, again, a good thing), the percentage of staff who are impacted by this and will be unavailable to provide emergency care is very high. Demographic shifts over the last few decades are also thought to mean that there are fewer house husbands (or housewives, in a minority of vet families) who are available to look after children while Mum (or Dad) is at work.

What has the reaction from vets been?

The best way to describe it is “mixed”. There have been three different responses…

It’s all for the best

There are some vets who are absolutely in favour of the change. After all, they point out, it’s an emergency situation – people are literally dying, and we’re arguing over whether or not vets should be sending children to school! One vet, who asked to remain anonymous, pointed out that if we – as a profession – are really serious about controlling infectious disease, we should be equally serious about keeping our own children at home to reduce it’s spread, rather than expecting everyone else to do something that we’re not willing to.

It’s a disaster

Then there are those who are deeply concerned about the impact on them and on animal welfare. 

A very popular post has pointed out that there’s a huge contradiction between denying key worker status (preventing many veterinary parents from going to work) and a legal obligation to provide emergency care (obliging them to go to work anyway). Add in the fact that too many veterinary employers (including, apparently, some of the big corporates) seem to be unwilling to furlough veterinary staff… So how are people supposed to survive if they cannot work but also have to provide childcare? 

In the short term, there are enough vets without small children who are able to cover. The big worry is that, in 6-12 months  there won’t be enough vets – because they’ve had to resign or change careers as a result of this ruling. And we already have a significant shortage of experienced vets anyway… so how is that a good thing for animal welfare?

We can see why even though we don’t like it and we’re worried where this is going

The vets in this group – and it’s sort of where I sit – accept the risk of transmission, and feel that there is more that can be done. However, it does leave a lot of vets in a very awkward position, especially now that the emergency provision clause has been lost as well. To be honest, I can see the arguments on both sides of this one. I think the guidance isn’t unreasonable (although I wish emergency provision was still in there), but I’m very concerned if there are indeed some veterinary businesses who aren’t supporting their staff right now. 

This is a pandemic – even the RCVS has said it shouldn’t be business as usual, but too many places seem to be putting too much emphasis on “catching up” with routine work, rather than helping their staff to weather this storm. 

How will this impact my pet’s veterinary care?

It is likely that you will see more and more practices going “emergency only”. While the current guidelines allow vets to see any cases “necessary for animal welfare”, as there are fewer vets available, expect more practices to be more restrictive over what cases they can see face to face. 

You can also expect a lot more telephone or video appointments, as vets forced to work from home try to stay on top of pets’ and horses’ veterinary needs. As a profession, we’re pretty much all agreed that it’s a lot better than nothing if there’s a shortage of vets – and a lot better than the owner or our colleagues catching Covid!

How can I help?

Well, first of all, keep a close eye on your practice’s website and social media. They’ll be updating it regularly, so make sure you know what their current opening hours and policies are… remember that this might change rapidly!

Don’t just turn up at your practice without an appointment either – working “covid secure” isn’t easy, and the staff need to be set up in advance. If you can, book an appointment online; if not, at least phone (although be aware that with fewer staff in the building, it may take longer than usual to get through).

Finally, and most importantly – if you’re due for some non-urgent or routine appointment, see if it can be delayed. This wave of the virus won’t last for ever, but right now we’re all in a tough place. The best thing we can do is minimise our interactions with other people, stay at home, and stay safe.

What about the long-term impact?

The decisions we make today won’t just affect how many of the vulnerable humans survive, but also how many veterinary practices and professionals will still be in business to help animals in 5 or 10 years’ time.

The way this is going, don’t be surprised if at the end of the pandemic there’s a major restructuring of the veterinary industry, with fewer practices and less choice.