New president faces unprecedented times

New president  faces unprecedented times
Susan is pictured with her chain of office at the NIVA AGM. Included are (from left), Seamus O’Kane, treasurer; Aurelie Moralis, senior vice-president; Mark Little, junior vice-president and Rachel Davies, secretary.

As the veterinary profession reels from the impact of Covid-19, NIVA’s new president, Susan Cunningham, pays tribute to her colleagues….

Belfast-based companion animal vet, Susan Cunningham accepted this year’s presidency of the North of Ireland Veterinary Association at its February AGM, taking over the NIVA role and that of BVA(NI) president from predecessor, Aurelie Moralis.

Fortunately, NIVA’s subsequent Spring Meeting was able to take place as planned, but shortly afterwards the Covid-19 crisis gathered momentum and a national lockdown was announced.

Speaking to NI Veterinary Today for the first time since taking on the job, Susan has praised her colleagues for their response to the pandemic. She expressed pride in the entire local profession for all that they had done (and not done) to contribute to the “flattening of the curve”, and gratitude to the BVA and RCVS for all their hard work in providing guidance and lobbying for financial aid.

“The entire profession has been affected,” she reported. “No aspect of our work has been normal. Food animal practitioners have had the challenge of negotiating their busiest season with reduced manpower and having to take particular precautions to protect farmers, many of whom are shielded. Equine and companion animal practitioners initially limited their activities to emergency cases only. Even though more recently they have been navigating a return to a fuller range of services, this has not been without its stresses, while they attempt to catch up with a backlog of cases in surgeries not designed for social distancing.”

Susan, who graduated from Cambridge in 1991, got her first taste of veterinary life as casual VO in Ballymena, when what should have been three weeks turned into nine months.

From there, she moved on to spend a year working for the RSPCA at its small animal hospital in Hong Kong, before returning to NI in 1993 and a position at Cedar Grove Veterinary Clinic in Belfast, where she still works when her other commitments allow.

With four children now grown up, Susan has become what she describes as ‘a serial volunteer’ with the Worldwide Veterinary Service and Mission Rabies. That association has seen her take on work in countries from South America to East Africa.

She has also been sitting on the NIVA Council since 2015.

When Susan made her first address to members after accepting the president’s chain in February, it was without knowledge of the immense changes that were about to be wrought by the pandemic. On that occasion, she declared a long-standing interest in the challenges facing vets in a rapidly changing professional landscape, veterinary mental health, animal welfare in a range of contexts, the responsible use of medicines and the rising tide of One Health awareness, and a more recent involvement in the issues around TB, Brexit and the veterinary staff shortage.

She envisaged that the year would bring change as the RCVS announced its reviews of telemedicine, the definition of “under care” and the burden of proof in disciplinary hearings, but little did anyone present imagine telemedicine being in routine use for triage less than two months later.

Brexit was also mentioned, of course, and Susan referred to its implications in crucial areas such as staffing, food production, drug availability and pet travel arrangements. She also said that she had been relieved to see confirmation of the continuation of Mutual Recognition of Qualifications between the RoI and the UK:

‘Maintaining good communications with our colleagues over the border and encouraging rapid transfer of information between the negotiating tables of Europe and the vets at the sharp end of legislation implementation will clearly be a priority,’ she told members.

In terms of issues around sustainability, Susan said that she believed the profession was at ‘a fork in the road’ and encouraged all local vets to engage with, an online forum addressing issues at the interface of animal, human and environmental health.

She told those gathered at the Dunadry:

‘NIVA and the BVA are listening to you and are ready to speak up on your behalf. Every one of us has a part to play in shaping our future professional landscape. We do need to stand together, respecting one another’s opinions and differences of opinion to advocate for our profession, our patients, the sectors we represent and serve, and the planet. We need to keep looking at the bigger implications of everything we do as veterinarians.’

In a recent letter to the NIVA membership Susan acknowledged that the immediate future might not be quite what anyone had started the year expecting, and that there would certainly be further hurdles. Even without a second wave of Covid-19, the full financial impact and indeed, that of Brexit remains ahead.

However, speaking to NI Veterinary Today at the end of June, she expressed cautious optimism about the current level of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, and looked forward to attending (virtual) BVA Council in mid-July.

‘Two full days of Zoom meetings will be exhausting, but BVA have been putting a lot of work into an excellent set of policy positions on improving the veterinary workplace, TB eradication, and protecting welfare in transit and slaughter, and I am really looking forward to seeing them go through the final stages.  Weekly Council Conferences through the worst of the crisis have made the technology almost second nature, and as long as Covid-19 remains under control, it will be a relief to shift the focus of our efforts back towards our long-term objectives and animal welfare goals.’