All change, as VetNI reacts to coronavirus impact

All change, as VetNI reacts to coronavirus impact
The rapid onset of Covid-19 forced VetNI to cancel its entire programme of events and CPD at a stroke.

VetNI plays a crucial role in holding NI’s veterinary community together, organising and executing a complex annual programme of CPD and events and acting as a one-stop-shop for communication to and from the vet profession.  Coronavirus threw its carefully structured plans for 2020 into disarray, as Jo Gibson explains.

In February, when we asked our IT support to set up the small VetNI team with the ability to work seamlessly from home, they thought we were panicking unnecessarily. By the time they had completed the task, several other clients had asked them for the same thing!  

In any given February and March, the VetNI team is usually in full swing with AVSPNI Spring Conference planning and this year was no different. An excellent lecture programme had been pulled together and the VetNI team had applied its usual attention to detail with respect to the all-important Party Night. We had designed the conference brochure and the printed copies were in the office ready to be mailed to vets and practices when the true potential impact of Covid 19 became obvious and questions about the wisdom of proceeding began to be asked.

Data was gathered on the financial and reputational impact of various alternative options and the AVSPNI Council then deliberated.  They took the difficult decision to cancel this year’s event before lockdown came into effect and clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, this was the right course of action.   We then spent a couple of weeks communicating the decision, issuing refunds and re-booking the speakers for next spring instead. 

Other events where planning had to go into reverse were the NIVA Seniors’ Lunch, the AVSPNI Summer Outing, the AVSPNI Spring Meeting, Autumn Conference, the AVSPNI programme of evening small animal meetings, the joint Autumn meeting and the NIVA Summer Social.  Some we still hope to re-schedule, others such as the NIVA Summer Social were shaped into something new, namely the Grand NIVA Inaugural Virtual Village Fete and a series of socially distant, small group guided nature and history rambles (see the VetNI events page).

Events are the most visible part of our day-to-day workload but by no means the only thing we do.  Co-ordinating vet representation at various stakeholder meetings is an ongoing task, ensuring that veterinary input is given where it is needed.  That accelerated exponentially in March – at one point meetings with DAERA alone were held daily, though this rapidly dropped to three times a week, then weekly as the path through the Covid minefield became clearer.TB testing in particular gave rise to hours of meetings and discussion – an excellent Covid-19 risk assessment guidance was produced by AVSPNI which hopefully helped many of you to better assess the risk to your staff, clients and the wider community.  We know that it also helped farmers to understand the risks and why practices were hesitant to rush ahead with testing. 

Communication with VetNI from vets also increased exponentially as they struggled to interpret the new rules from BVA, RCVS, DAERA the UK government and the NI assembly. We answered and signposted as best we could.  If the enquirer was a member of NIVA and/or the AVSPNI then their queries were passed back to the associations for further consideration. 

It’s worth mentioning that the unwavering dedication of the council members and officers of both associations and the time that they put into trying to resolve members’ queries when grappling with the sudden change to their own businesses and personal lives was truly inspiring. The level of co-operation between NIVA and AVSPNI and between them and the UK veterinary bodies was also impressive. Though we were all groping in the dark initially, the sharing of knowledge undoubtedly led to better advice for everyone. 

Levels of stress exhibited by many telephone callers were high. Vet Support Northern Ireland had recognised this possibility and VetNI worked with the local peer support volunteers to issue stress-busting advice for the whole NI veterinary family.  Tailored advice for the over 70s from a respected vet and life coach of 70+ years must surely have been useful to most families. 

Of course, we also had to work through our own business issues too – how to look after our own team, each with their own specific family circumstances; whether and when to furlough; how to continue to offer similar levels of support to the NI associations and the profession when so many of our ‘normal’ working protocols are no longer available to us; Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams or an alternative; where to get hand sanitiser; how to run webinars smoothly and so on.

We’re still learning and still adapting and we are inspired by all our NI vets and how you have responded to this crisis. We’re grateful to be working and more importantly, grateful to be working for a caring profession that extends that care beyond animals and their owners to us.