For months now, vets have been working under very strict “Covid-secure” guidance. This has meant minimal people in the practice; few or no home visits; and in many cases “kerbside vetting” where the owners stay outside and only the animal goes into the surgery. There have also been more subtle organisational changes: many practices operate a “team-based” rota now, with minimal staff in at any one time. Then if one team is exposed to Covid and has to self-isolate, the whole practice isn’t shut down. 

So how long is this likely to go on for, as the last wave (we hope) of the pandemic starts to decline and the Government starts to activate the roadmap out of restrictions?

Well, the first thing to say is that – we don’t know for sure. The Government Roadmap doesn’t mention veterinary services, or animal welfare. In fact, it only mentions animals once (when discussing zoonotic diseases that can jump from animals to humans). And the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ guidance and flowcharts only cover the current situation. The same goes for the British Veterinary Association’s current guidance.

Why have vets interpreted the guidance as strictly as they have?

There are three main reasons. The first is that in practice, small animal vets especially (dealing with dogs, cats, rabbits and small pets) are often working in very tight and restricted consulting rooms, where ventilation and distancing are difficult. As a result, veterinary staff are at higher risk of accidentally transmitting Covid between clients (although good use of PPE means that they themselves are probably at lower than average risk of contracting it).

Secondly, we have a duty of care to our patients: if we have to self-isolate, who will look after sick animals? So many practices are being extra-careful to make sure they’re still around when you need them.

And finally, vets and vet nurses are very used to dealing with infectious disease. After all, we’re all trained in barrier nursing and infection control. So we know just how hard it is to actually prevent an airborne virus from spreading, not just how to tick the boxes on a government checklist!

So what’s the plan?

Well, given that we don’t know for sure, there are some pointers in the Roadmap.

Types of Business

The Roadmap divides businesses and organisations into categories. Other than educational establishments, there are no plans to reopen indoor businesses in March (“Step 1”). Hopefully in April, as part of Step 2, indoor retail and personal care will reopen – but as veterinary practices are still open now, this won’t make much difference. So looking to see when a business is allowed to reopen isn’t helpful – because (fortunately) veterinary practices aren’t shut even during this lockdown.

Risk analysis

The second consideration is to look at the risk. Certainly, all businesses have been required to conduct a risk assessment, and (as the Government point out), as cases of Covid in the community fall, and as more people are vaccinated, the risk to individuals will fall too. There is a suggestion that risk analysis will be more important to businesses from Step 3 and 4 onwards – but we don’t yet know what that will look like.

Covid-secure guidelines

The key point in the Roadmap is this: the Government accepts that “Social distancing is difficult and damaging for businesses and, as a result, it is important to return to as near to normal as quickly as possible.” Before we get to Step 4, they are therefore planning “a review of social distancing measures and other long-term measures that have been put in place to limit transmission. The results of the review will help inform decisions on the timing and circumstances under which rules on 1m+, face masks and other measures may be lifted.”

Vetster option 01 (Blog)

Until that review is complete, though, we’re still under heavy restrictions.

The bottom line:

We need to wait and see – firstly, how effective are the vaccines? Secondly, can we keep cases low in the meantime? And thirdly, what is the minimum level of restrictions needed to keep infection levels low and protect the NHS?

We can reasonably hope that restrictions will start to be significantly eased in June – but it may be a lot longer (or even never) before we’re completely back to the way we were.