UK CVO Christine Middlemiss talks about what’s been getting her focus and what’s important to her after five months in post.
The 1st March 2018 seems a lifetime in the past - and also just yesterday. It’s the date I took over the role of UK Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO), following the retirement of Nigel Gibbens. Now, a few months into my new post, it seems an ideal time to share with you what’s been keeping me busy.
My calendar over the last few weeks gives a good flavour of what is happening in the animal health and welfare space. It also underlines just what being the CVO entails – from advising ministers and senior officials on animal health and welfare and diseases, including ‘zoonotic’ which can spread from animals to people, to working with stakeholders, partners and other experts including my counterparts in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Europe and further afield.
TB Strategy Review
I’ve had productive meetings with the TB Strategy Review Group. We are five years into our 25-year bovine TB eradication strategy and it’s timely to reflect on the next steps. I’m not formally on the group because I will provide advice to Ministers on their resulting output, but I attend to give context, knowledge and advice on current activities. It’s a small group of experts - a wildlife expert, an epidemiologist, and a social behaviourist - led by Professor Charles Godfrey. No one has come with fixed opinions; all evidence and views are up for discussion and it is truly collaborative and focused on future options. I’m really looking forward to their report going to Ministers at the end of September.
Antibiotic resistance is a global threat with potential to impact on all of us, our families’ health and that of our animals. So it was very interesting for me to spend a day at the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) chairing a stakeholder group considering our next steps to tackling antibiotic resistance.
We’ve had controls on antibiotic use in animals for many years - they can only be prescribed by a vet, withdrawal periods defining time of last use before livestock can enter the food chain must be adhered to, and there is residue sampling in meat. Further voluntary action taken by industry has reduced antibiotic use in animals by 27% in the first three years of the current strategy. But the next steps will be more difficult and focus on infection prevention and effective, rapid diagnostics.
Additionally we, both those in public and animal health profession, need to change expectation management on antibiotic prescribing. None of us should be expecting our doctor, or our vet, to be giving us antibiotics when we or our pets are sick if they don’t believe there truly is a bacterial infection there. I support the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) approach: ‘as much as necessary and as little as possible’, using antibiotics only in the right circumstances to maintain good animal welfare.
Our group, made up of vets, farmers, NGOs and industry associations, discussed a range of issues including whether we are being ambitious enough. This is a true One-Health problem that needs an integrated approach across people, our environment and our animals.
The future of government vets
Future vets in Government are very important to me, both having the numbers and skills we will need - which is much in discussion as part of EU Exit - and having rewarding careers for all. Vets do government work right across the spectrum from farm to lab to fork, looking for, detecting, treating and preventing disease.
I’ve also spent some time talking to very new graduates from all of the vet schools about the CVO role, how I love the complex problem solving it involves, enjoy all the people interactions and have had the opportunity to grow and develop personally and professionally working within government, here and abroad.
No job is perfect but the scope for vets in government is great. We do need to do more to support government roles through secondments to get more soft skills and wider expertise in different contexts. I recognise secondments can conflict with getting the day job done, and meeting key performance indicators (KPIs). But, without investing in our development, and shaping our future, we can create bigger problems than in the here and now.
The CVO cannot do a good job without scientific expertise. Knowing what a specific test result means in specific circumstances informs disease control decisions. So I’ve been catching up on animal health science and research delivery that informs CVO advice and decision-making.
I visited Pirbright who provide Defra and the Devolved Administrations with expertise on Foot and Mouth disease, African Swine Fever (ASF) and Bluetongue virus. Pirbright has a global reputation for its work and expertise. This is important as it demonstrates to the world that UK animal health standards are based on internationally-renowned science.
I also attended a session on upgrading the APHA Weybridge site. Much of our routine testing is done by Weybridge colleagues informing the UK animal disease status which is vital to trade, livestock productivity and welfare. The facility also provides applied science informing TB policy, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) disease control and risk assessment on the movement and impact of the exotic diseases I worry about and much, much more. A project is looking at all options for this valued site, including risks and opportunities and cost benefit.
Finally, I’ve been working closely with a range of policy experts, APHA, FSA and others on the risks posed to the UK the presence and spread of ASF in Eastern Europe. ASF is not a threat to human health but it is fatal to pigs and so could have a devastating impact on our pig industry. The disease can be spread by pigs eating infected meat so we are busy raising awareness, especially to those less familiar with keep pigs, of the dangers of illegally feeding catering waste, kitchen scraps or meat products to pigs. We’re currently working with stakeholder groups to make a series of videos about how the disease is spreading and reducing the risk of it reaching the UK, the clinical signs to look out for and the impact on the pig industry if it were to get here. It is important that ALL pig keepers, commercial or not, take the right action.
Overall, there is lots and lots going on – for me, the department and government; and there are lots of opportunities to make a difference, to consider complex disease issues and to spend time with insightful, passionate people. These are the things that make me tick so I am hugely enjoying the role.