It’s 7.55am on a Saturday and I’m at Sydney Domestic Airport on my way home. To Orange in New South Wales (NSW). I’m reflecting that 8 years ago, at about the same week of the year, again in my first 3 months of a new job, I sailed across a stunning autumnal Loch Awe in Argyll to visit a salmon farm. Today as the new Chief Veterinary Office in NSW Government I’m on my way back from visiting, amongst other things, a barramundi farm near Darwin under clear blue skies and nearly 40 degrees of heat.
A career that's challenging, exciting, daunting and rewarding
Life as a vet in government is challenging, exciting, daunting and most of all for me, rewarding. And I never thought of it as a career choice. I thought from the outside that being a government vet is all about paperwork, ticking boxes and irrelevant rules. It is not. I have never used my vet brain as much to make such a difference.
Let me explain.
My job is to develop evidence based solutions to complex animal health problems. Much like a vet in practice. We both have to think about the science of animals and pathogens, epidemiology and disease pathogenisis. We have to understand the outcomes our clients need – my clients are farmers and animal owners, taxpayers and Ministers. We have to think about the practical implementation of our proposed solution. Is it feasible for an elderly arthritic person to tablet their cat 3 times a day, or for a sheep farmer to quarantine purchased stock? We have to consider is the solution affordable and is it worth the benefit it will provide. Once we have a preferred solution we then have to explain it, get our clients on board and have their trust and confidence to carry it out. We have to make it happen, we can’t just talk about it – develop a vaccine programme and get at risk animals protected. We need to make sure we comply with the law whether it is prescribing medicine, or carrying out import checks. Finally let’s not forget to try and find time to review the outcomes whether it’s driving home after surgery or publishing a formal lessons learned report.
So vets are multi-skilled operators whatever field we are in. In government I get to use these skills to protect our trade and our economy; to protect public health; and to protect animal welfare. Let me give you some snapshots then of what it means I actually do.
In order to protect our animals from exotic diseases imported animals, meat and animal products have to meet certain standards. This is carried out at a Border Inspection Post (BIP). At Felixstowe thousands of containers arrive every day, containing millions of items that could pose as risk. The sheer scale amazed me. A vet has ultimate sign off on what comes in to the country or not. That’s a big responsibility. One of my job roles was to ensure this happened to be able to assure Ministers, and other Member States that our system was robust without being overly burdensome on industry. This included a visit to new port under construction at the time a vast sea of mud, 10 months later a working BIP.
I love working on emerging diseases, understanding how they might work, what might happen and what impact there could be. Schmallenberg (Wikipedia) was a completely new livestock virus in the world. I got to work with UK and EU scientists to explore the latest knowledge; I built a collaborative group with field vets, farmers and industry bodies to explore how the virus might work in our animal populations and what farmers and vets needed to know; I went to the EU and discussed why we shouldn’t make it a regulated disease; working with the Met Office we mapped where and when the virus might arrive; I got to sit in the officials’ box in the House of Lords, feet away from Seb Coe, supporting our Minister at question time.
All of it challenging, exciting, daunting and rewarding. It’s given me experiences beyond my imagining, knowledge of things I never thought I would need, and opportunity to make a difference in my own way.