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Royal College Day 2022: Address from Kate Richards, outgoing RCVS President 2021-22

Good afternoon.

I would like to add my welcome to everyone here in One Great George Street and to those watching online from across the globe. To my family, friends and esteemed guests I’d like to thank you for your support throughout my presidential year. Thanks to my brother, Jonathan, sister, Sue and nieces Eva and Tess watching online, and to my sister-in-law, Eleanor who has joined us here in One Great George Street.

Kate Richards gives her final address as RCVS President 2021-22 at Royal College Day 2022 The RCVS is a veterinary workplace, it is my workplace, and I am proud to have led Council through some challenging discussions where every member has been courteous and respectful of, at times, differing opinions.

Robust and constructive debate leads to better decisions, and I would like to thank all members of Council during this year, past and present, for their commitment, challenge and passion for the topics we have debated.

Special thanks go to my fellow Officers, Senior Vice-President Mandisa Greene, Junior Vice-President Melissa Donald, Treasurer Niall Connell and Vet Nurse Council Chair Matt Rendle. Your support and wise counsel have been greatly valued.

I’d like to thank the RCVS staff whose commitment and dedication to the professions is unflinching. The RCVS employs exceptionally talented staff, there are those with legal qualifications and double PhDs, as well as vets and vet nurses who work day in and day out for the professions all under the fabulous leadership of Lizzie Lockett, our CEO.

The RCVS cannot and does not work in a vacuum and so thank you to the many organisations and people with whom I have worked. These include the CVOs for the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the BVA, BCVA, BSAVA, VPHA, AGV, BEVA, SPVS, AVS and other divisions, the government departments of Defra, the FSA and APHA.

My sincere thanks go to Professor the Lord Trees for hosting our receptions at the House of Lords, notably the recent welcome event for the Federation of Vets of Europe General Assembly, and a lunchtime discussion last week for Members of both Houses on the RCVS’ recommendations for legislative reform. All stakeholders’ interest and inputs to RCVS projects and initiatives is greatly valued and appreciated with quality inputs producing quality outputs.

I would like to thank members of the vet and vet nurse professions for your support, emails, texts, phone calls and commentary on social media. It’s great connecting with you.

Last year, the RCVS hosted a Workforce Summit, with a preliminary series of online focus groups. We are not the only sector facing workforce shortages and it was heartening that eighty individuals from across the professions came together.

This was not about looking backwards but looking forwards to identify solutions, seeking stakeholders’ ideas and insights to address recruitment, retention and encourage returners to the profession.

The room buzzed with energy and the many suggestions collated in a report with an action plan under development.

There will be no silver bullet to the crisis, but by collaborating and drawing on the diversity of skills, knowledge and expertise within the veterinary professions, I believe we have both the means and the will to address the challenges we face.

I am particularly proud of the scheme for refuges which the RCVS created in partnership with the Refugee Council and launched in 2020. Expanded in 2021, this scheme provides financial and educational support to UK-based veterinary professionals with refugee status to enable them to take the RCVS Statutory Membership Examination, and this includes free access to RCVS Knowledge library resources as well as financial support for travel and accommodation related to examinations.

As part of this package, the RCVS has collaborated with the BVA, BSAVA, BEVA, BCVA, VMG, SPVS and SVS who have all generously agreed to provide free membership as well as a variety of benefits including training resources and mentoring. Then another proud moment in March of this year when RCVS Council voted to expand this scheme to cover those with overseas veterinary nursing qualifications. 

I have visited each UK vet school to speak to the final years and lead the newly graduated vets through their professional declaration. It is a very moving ceremony and every time it takes me right back to my own graduation, as a 22-year-old repeating the same declaration with pride pulsing in my veins.

I see the passion in their eyes when I shake their clammy hands. It’s so inspiring to see the new cohort of veterinary surgeons fledge and take flight.

Every one of those new graduates will have had a unique pathway to graduation, every one of them will have different story to tell. And everyone here will have stories to tell, some we choose to share, some we keep to ourselves. We are each shaped by our lived experiences.

There’s a saying which goes, ’Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ Literally this means the perception of beauty is subjective, what may be captivating to one person may be unappealing to another.

What do you see?

A broken bowl or one beautifully repaired?

In Japan, Kintsugi translates as ‘the beauty of imperfections,’ the art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted with gold, silver or platinum.

I imagine many listening and watching have scars which can be traced to bites, scratches and kicks. I remember the time I was paring a horse’s hoof, digging out a white line abscess when my hoof knife slipped. The curved blade scraped off a sliver of skin from the inside of my left wrist which was holding up the hoof. There was blood everywhere and what was most mortifying was that the farrier was watching over me, waiting to shoe the horse. I was still learning my craft.

I’ve long white scars on my right forearm, skin scraped off by calves’ newly erupted incisors as I guided many a calf’s head through the dam’s narrow pelvic canal.

But not all scars are visible.

There’s still a lump on my rib, the callous was formed after I broke it playing in the first ladies rugby team at the Dick Vet School in Edinburgh. It was a loose tackle; I was still learning the technique.

More recently I broke my fibula, boringly when I went over on my ankle in a pothole. Less boringly it was in Havana. That was six years ago, and I still get the odd twinge.

And not all scars are physical.

I still have the scar of losing my father eight years ago. My mother has Alzheimer’s and has not recognised me for five years, which is another emotional scar. They were both teachers and a massive support to me growing up in suburban Glasgow. If they were a bit bewildered why their daughter developed a passion to be a farm animal vet at the age of eight, they never showed it, and backed me to the hilt.

This is why I believe the theme for my Presidential year, ‘Connections that Count’, is so important.  These connections have three dimensions.

Firstly, connection with ourselves: eating, sleeping and living well so we can BE well both physically and mentally.

Secondly, connection with our professions and everyone working in veterinary teams. It’s so important the veterinary professions support one another to thrive in our chosen sector ensuring vets and vet nurses are engaged and nurtured to develop in their careers.

Thirdly, connection is about collaborating and working with other professions to exchange knowledge and build partnerships for the benefit of animals, humans and wider society.

I have been especially pleased in building the relationship with the Royal Society of Medicine and raising awareness of what the veterinary profession does which has a significant impact in challenging issues for the medical profession and social services.

For example, vets, if they suspect a non-accidental injury in an animal, an injury that does not align with the clinical history provided, can breach client confidentiality (it’s explicit in the Code of Professional Conduct) and report this suspicion to the appropriate authorities.

It’s a sobering thought, but by raising the lid on the possibility of an abusive household, a vet could be instrumental in saving someone’s life, a child’s life. I am delighted to have spoken at two events hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine on the link between animal abuse and human abuse and am thrilled that Roger Kirby, President of the RSM is with us today.

“What’s next, Kate?”

It is something I am asked with increasing frequency. But, before I look forward, I want to reflect on what has happened so far. Looking back on my career I have sought to identify the keys to what helped or who supported me to open the many doors along the path of my career.

At school, I was determined to be a farm animal vet despite having no experience of farm animal work apart from helping crofters in the summer holidays in the north east of Scotland.

My Mum wrote to their local vet asking if he would take me out on his rounds for a week. He tried to put me off but failed. All the farm vets I knew were men. I kept in touch with him through vet school and one afternoon when I was revising for my finals, he phoned to offer me a job.

This was the springboard to my career in farm animal work, he opened the door for me, and I jumped at the opportunity. I was the first female farm vet he had ever employed; he took a chance on me.

I spent a year with him and then moved to a larger farm animal practice in Aberdeenshire. Again, I was the first female farm vet they had employed; again, someone took a chance on me.

After about 12 years, one of the senior vets asked if I would do the Official Veterinarian course to share the veterinary public health work. On the third time of asking I agreed, more out of support for him, if I am honest, as he was always there for me with difficult calvings and uterine torsions in my early days.

For the next two years I did a mix of farm and OV work, but my feet were becoming increasingly itchy and I didn’t know what else I could do - I was a farm vet wasn’t I?

Then, one morning, driving to the slaughterhouse for a five AM start I realised that being a vet was not limited to clinical work. It was a light bulb moment for me.

The key that opened the next door was the course in veterinary public health which gave me an extra qualification but, more importantly, the confidence to leave clinical practice. I knew that if it didn’t work out then I had the dual safety nets of clinical practice and OV work. I took a chance on me.

Within six months, I was offered a job in a pharmaceutical company in London. At my leaving party in Aberdeen a farmer looked at me in disbelief as he said, “Bit Kate, there’s nae coos in Lindin, ye ken!”

The veterinary advisor job was totally different although still working with large animal vets and farmers, just no hands-on work. Instead, I gave technical support on the company’s cattle and sheep products and gave talks across the country as well as in Europe.

Then, in 2001, I was driving to Builth Wells in Wales to give a talk to farmers about leptospirosis in cattle when an announcement interrupted the music on the car radio. That can’t be right, I thought, looking at the radio. Foot and Mouth in the UK?

A few weeks later I was helping out in the Defra headquarters in London at weekends, desperate to do something to help out in the crisis on top of my day job. During those weekends at Defra, I worked with an amazing manager, and experienced the team work and support from the Disease Emergency Control Centre in central London, the staff working under enormous pressure and increasing media scrutiny.

The rural movement restrictions imposed in response to the F&M crisis resulted in the general election being postponed by a month. I was in the thick of it. I’d never considered working for Defra, but the experience opened my eyes. When I spotted an advert for a veterinary advisor in Defra or year or so later, I applied.

The key that opened the next door was my experience during F&M.

I worked as a vet advisor in Defra for eighteen months before moving to manage one of the government scientific advisory committees on prions, so that was BSE (Mad cow disease) and the human equivalent vCJD.

Three years later, in 2005, the World Health Organisation issued alerts stating that the highly pathogenic bird flu sweeping south east Asia could move into the human population. Remember the run on Tamiflu? Countries stockpiling reserves? There was a call in Defra for staff to help out on the bird flu communications team and my hand was up, waving frantically in the air. I was keen to move away from the veterinary pigeonhole others kept putting me in and was applying for communications roles, an area I was keen to develop.

This extra experience strengthened my application when I applied for the corporate stakeholder communications manager in HMRC. On my first day my new boss took me aside. ‘I just knew I could work with you, Kate.’

The key to that move had been my time on the Defra bird flu communications team and the HMRC manager taking a chance on me.

How did I feel leaving Defra and not needing a veterinary degree for my job anymore? I was terrified, but I still had that umbilical cord tethering me to the veterinary profession, I was a member of BCVA Council which kept me connected with the profession and so, although my day job was totally non-veterinary, I never left the profession.

I left government in 2014 with a non-executive role. This divergence in my career happened when a friend emailed me an advert, ‘It’s got your name written all over it,’ she said’. She nudged me and I grasped the opportunity, stepped through the door when I was offered the position with the Moredun Foundation Board. A year later I was offered a non-executive role at SRUC and keen to develop my portfolio, relishing the challenge and variety of work.

I was first elected to RCVS Council in 2015 adding to my portfolio. I had never thought of standing for president. It probably was in my mind at an unconscious level as an interesting possibility, but it was a Council member who provided the key which opened this door. She emailed me to ask if I had ever considered standing for President. That nudge gave me the confidence, planted the seed and here I am.

This presidential year has had its twists and turns, has stimulated and stretched me and thickened my skin. I have grown both personally and professionally.

However, despite being surrounded by people it has, at times, been very lonely. Leadership is lonely, leadership of a regulator even more so.

My aim throughout the year was to listen and learn, to support and facilitate, to collaborate and connect. That was my intention, but I know I have not pleased everyone. I have developed a few more invisible scars, but these have made me more resilient, more reflective, more determined. It certainly has whetted my appetite for more, for what exactly I am not sure yet!

Throughout my career, doors have opened due to a mixture of reasons. My own dogged determination, curiosity, desire to learn and be stretched, the thrill of experiencing new roles, meeting new people and making connections. The keys for these career doors have included people, experience and circumstances, some in plain sight and some not immediately obvious. It was about being open to opportunities.

Going back to ‘What’s next, Kate?’ My intention is to slide into the slow/slower lane to recharge before making my next move. I have a manuscript of my memoir which has been gathering dust for the last year so I shall return to that and indeed have enough material for another chapter or two. I have often been in the general bewilderment lane, it’s a place where I reflect and take stock and work out what is important to me before looking for the opportunity for the next move. Changing lanes is what I have done all my life and I am not going to stop now.

We have all come to this event from varying directions, with diverse experiences, from different backgrounds and differing perspectives. It’s all part of the fascinating tapestry of life and we are the richer for it.

It is so important to understand and recognise what each of us brings, learn about each other and what has shaped us and to foster those connections.

Kintsugi - what do you see?

Thank you

July 2022