NI vets could be drafted into hospitals in Covid-19 continguency plan

Northern Ireland vets could be drafted into hospitals to help with the Covid-19 response, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has confirmed.

The plans were first made public by DAERA Minister Edwin Poots during an Ad Hoc Committee on the Covid-19 Response on Tuesday (April 7).

Across the UK, it’s understood some vets have already been donating ventilators that are suitable for human use and PPE for use in hospitals, but the emergency plans could see them placed into frontline roles alongside doctors and nurses should staffing gaps develop in the NHS.

‘Experts in ventilation’

Addressing the committee, Minister Poots said: “One of the things the agri-sector can offer – if this crisis is bad enough – is the assistance of our veterinarians in our hospitals.

You could ask: ‘What does someone who treats animals know about humans?’ They are experts in ventilation. If there is pressure on ventilation, our veterinarians can help.

“If there are additional pressures, and we have got the ventilation equipment but have staffing problems in the hospitals, then help can be provided.”

Minister Poots explained the measures planned within DAERA were expected to cost around £100 million to implement.

It includes using the technical capacity and expertise of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) to scale-up Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 testing programme.

Together with Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, the Covid-19 programme led by AFBI will facilitate up to 1,000 tests a day.

The Minister also said he was working with ferry companies to keep food, feed and produce moving in and out of Northern Ireland.

“If there is one message I want to reinforce, it is that we are all in this together. Working together is not an option – it’s a requirement,” Minister Poots added.

Legal restrictions

The body responsible for certifying veterinarians in the UK, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), said it was aware that some veterinary professionals had already been directly approached by NHS Trusts.

Eleanor Ferguson, RCVS registrar, said: “While all of us recognise and admire the desire of veterinary professionals to play a frontline clinical role in the fight against coronavirus, it must be remembered that there are certain legal restrictions on the assistance they can lawfully provide and how they should represent themselves to patients.

“We recognise that the government’s current priority is in re-recruiting retired and non-practising medical health professionals, and granting provisional registration to final-year medical students, and that the General Medical Council is making significant advances in these areas.

We would encourage veterinary professionals to first consider what assistance they might be able to provide to the livestock production, meat hygiene and food import or export industries, before volunteering to assist directly with local NHS Trusts.

“If local NHS Trusts do choose to employ veterinary professionals to undertake roles that are not reserved by law to licensed doctors, nurses or other regulated professionals, they must be satisfied that the individual has the skills and competences to do that role.

“However, any veterinary professionals employed in these roles should not misrepresent their position to patients and must be careful not to hold themselves out as a licensed medical doctor or nurse.”