New BVA head prepares for battle - Veterinary Practice
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New BVA head prepares for battle

John Bonner meets the incoming president of the British Veterinary Association.

EVERY BVA president will begin his or her term with fingers crossed that they will not have to cope with a national emergency like the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic of 2001.

Shropshire practitioner John Blackwell is well aware that his term of office which begins later this month may be fraught with such dangers – but he is probably better prepared than most for dealing with them.

That is because he has developed a particular interest in disaster planning through his membership of BARTA: the British Animal Rescue and Trauma care Association.

Established in February 2013, this organisation grew out of an initiative involving Professor Josh Slater at the RVC and the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service to co-ordinate the responses of veterinarians and emergency services in road accidents involving horses. Its remit has since been extended to include any other domestic and wild animal species and a wide range of emergency situations.

It aims to provide training and guidance to veterinarians and other professionals to ensure a fast and effective response in incidents where a wrong decision could have serious human and animal welfare implications as well as significant legal and economic consequences.

“Whatever the type of incident – a road accident involving a livestock trailer, a horse in a ditch or a cow stuck in a silage lagoon – it will be very useful to have a set of protocols developed in advance to get the animals out safely and protect the health and safety of the people involved. “It is important also to have a chain of command, so that you know who you are reporting to, and to have a Plan B in case your first attempt to deal with the problem doesn’t work.”

John’s interest in these issues has been sparked by the routine problems he faces in dealing with his dairy farmer and equine-owning clients but also by a major incident in March 2010. In that he had to deal with terrified and badly injured cattle in an overturned lorry which was dangling over the parapet of a viaduct carrying a trunk road across a local river.

“The situation was complicated because there were also two human fatalities and a lot of the cattle could not be safely extracted and had to be euthanased in situ. But in dealing with this fairly dramatic incident, I used the same principle that we follow every day in practice – that the vet is there to prevent unnecessary suffering for the animals in their care.”

Like his predecessor (and current BVA president) Robin Hargreaves, John is a 1985 graduate of the Liverpool veterinary school. He was born and raised in Wrexham, not far from Ellesmere where he is now based.

“I don’t have a veterinary or farming background but I got involved as a teenager, helping out on a neighbouring dairy farm. This would often involve getting up at 5am to do the milking, going to school and then back to the farm at night. I loved it and would have liked to go into farming as a career. That wasn’t to be, but I did get to help the vet when he came onto the farm and realised that was something I could do.”

On qualification John spent a couple of years as an assistant with a mixed practice near Preston before joining the Brownlow Veterinary Group, where he is now senior partner in a nine-vet practice working out of three premises.

His involvement in professional politics began when he was elected to the BCVA council in 1996. He served for a total of 14 years and helped shape the association’s response to proposed changes in medicines policy following the Marsh committee report in 2001 and he is still the profession’s representative on the board of the medicines training body, AMTRA. He also served with some distinction as the BCVA’s representative on various committees of the parent body.

But when the offer of a job on the BVA officer team was presented to him, it was a complete surprise. “I was in the practice office when a call came through from Peter Jones, the BVA president in 2012-13. I thought he was calling about a character reference for somebody so I asked who he was talking about here. He said, ‘You, you silly b*****.’ I was astonished but very proud to have the opportunity to represent the profession that has given me so much.”

John says that he has not had time to think about a theme for his presidential year and points out that this convention can only bring diminishing returns. “There are a limited number of ways that you can say that the veterinary profession is important and so sooner or later the same ideas will crop up again. But I am determined to use every opportunity to emphasise the diverse and vital roles that vets play in society.”

This reluctance to commit himself is also based on the knowledge that much of his time as president will be spent struggling with the same intractable problems that have plagued his predecessors, such as bovine TB control.

As a dairy practitioner he is aghast at the prospect of TB testing becoming the responsibility of unqualified technicians. He says that politicians don’t seem to recognise the added value created by having vets on farm to perform the test.

“If you are doing it properly, the test does involve a proper clinical examination. It is a vital method for finding disease and not just a statutory requirement. We shouldn’t cross our fingers and hope that the results are negative; if the disease is there we need to know, so that we can find a way to deal with it.”

John is also expecting to lock horns with DEFRA officials over the decision to close down seven veterinary investigation centres that were part of the AHVLA network.

He sees no realistic prospect of the decision being reversed and in many cases it is already too late with the staff dispersed and the laboratory equipment gone.

But there is a battle ahead to ensure that the new disease surveillance arrangements are effective and that farmers and vets receive prompt and accurate information when they submit tissue samples or whole carcases for post-mortem examination.

“I don’t want to be alarmist but have we got what we need on the ground to detect the next case of BSE, or some similar disease? The dangers are particularly acute if local vets aren’t able to get on the farm. How long will it be before somebody says: ‘Hang on, I’ve not seen that before, what is going on here’?”

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