27 August 2021

This afternoon, the Government announced that everywhere south of Auckland will move to alert level 3 at 11:59pm Tuesday. From then, an alert level border will be in place.

The overarching consideration is still that we are dealing with a public health situation and that members of the public should be at home unless there is good reason to leave.

In this email:

  • Information on providing veterinary care at alert level 3
  • Information for those at alert level 4
  • Guidance on dealing with the alert level regional borders  
  • More information about how and why we are setting standards for veterinary care provision during lockdown
  • Where to get support

Veterinary care at alert level 3

For those entering alert level 3, we suggest you start by making sure you know what the general Government requirements are for businesses and people. You can find them on the Government COVID-19 website. The key points are that people are expected to stay within their household bubbles when not at work or school and businesses must only operate with restrictions to keep workers safe, limit interaction with customers and help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For practices, the focus can shift from only essential work to only work that can be done safely. While more routine and non-urgent care can be provided, distancing requirements and other appropriate safety precautions should remain in place and clients should not be allowed into the clinic.

Travel between regions is heavily restricted.

Current guidance is based on the information available now. The Government's setting may change over the coming days, in which case we will update it.

Guidance for those staying at level 4

Those who are still in level 4 can now start making triage decisions in the context of a longer lockdown. Some things that could be put off for a week or two may not be able to be delayed much longer without serious compromise to welfare and it is okay to decide to see them. We have prepared new guidance for an extended lockdown.

We ask that you still go through the decision making process we’ve outlined previously (and available in our guidance on assessing emergency and urgent care).

We know that many would like to see some detailed advice on which procedures are okay and which aren’t. Unfortunately, our response is that we can’t provide a blanket rule for specific procedures because the situation is more complex than that.

The decision to proceed with any procedure has to involve situation-specific judgement call.

An example we’ve discussed at length is primary courses of vaccinations for companion animals. In almost all cases, we believe that they could be postponed in the context of a short lockdown, with appropriate advice to owners. However, in the longer lockdown we now find ourselves in, it might be reasonable to provide some vaccinations where the risks to unvaccinated animals are higher (e.g. parvovirus in known higher risk areas but in lower risk areas it could still be hard to justify).

Alert level regional borders

There are alert level borders South of Auckland. The Government has advised that alert level 4 workers (such as veterinarians) will be able to apply for an exemption to allow them to cross the border. No other travel across the border will be permitted, including clients (even in emergencies).

It’s clear that the border will be much stricter than last time. 

Permission to cross the border is being granted on a per-person level, which means that individuals will need to make a case to the Government for their need to cross. We and the NZVA can assist with these applications so please contact us for support.

We expect that applications will need to make a compelling case for crossing the border, based on animal welfare or food security. They will not be automatically approved and there will need to be evidence that appropriate expertise cannot be accessed from another source on the same side of the border as the client.

More info on how expectations are set and enforced

In a previous email, we linked to the COVID-19 Public Health Response (Alert Level Requirements) Order (No 9) 2021, which sets out the ground rules for the current lockdown. If you read it, you’ll notice that the exemption allowing veterinary businesses to operate is quite broad and doesn’t include restrictions on what types of cases can be seen.

The Order is a high-level, general document which sets out expectations at a national level. It doesn’t go into detail about each and every exception to the general rule and the Government’s approach is to rely on Government departments and professional regulators to set the parameters for each profession.

We do this by first looking at the purpose of the legislation. In this case, that’s to prevent, and limit the risk of, the outbreak or spread of COVID-19. We also look at the approach the legislation takes which, in this case, is to start with strict limits and then make exceptions on a case by case basis where there is a good rationale for doing so and risk can be managed. We use the same approach.

Importantly, while the Order is currently quite permissive for veterinary services, it may not stay that way. We have been given a degree of latitude by the Government to set our own parameters but that is being scrutinised and, if the industry is seen as too unrestrained in the way it operates during lockdown, it is very likely that the legislation will be changed to make things much more restrictive. The negative consequence of that is that there would likely be much less room to apply situational judgment and common sense.

We believe that the significant majority of practices are providing veterinary services appropriately. In the small number of cases where we have become aware of concerns about practices we are contacting them directly. As we’ve said previously, we look to deal with these issues informally in the first instance and that may mean providing advice to practices or asking them questions to help us understand how they reached the decision to accept a case or cases. So far, that conversation has been sufficient to deal with the issue.

We do not intend to take enforcement action against veterinarians who are genuinely trying to do the right thing. However, if, after making enquiries, we believe that a veterinarian or practice may be deliberately flouting the rules, we will refer the matter to our complaints process, as a last resort. Our hope is that this can be avoided. In making these decisions we look at whether there is evidence of a responsible, well-reasoned decision making process (our guidance on assessing emergency and urgent care can help with this). We also look at the context of that decision.

For example, neighbouring practices might initially adopt different approaches to some procedures during level 4 (although we would hope they could reach consistency over time) and both approaches might be reasonable. However, if there was evidence that Practice A was accepting Practice B’s clients for procedures that Practice B had already advised was not essential, that could be an indication that Practice A was looking to profit from flouting the rules rather than making a genuine attempt to apply judgment in a difficult situation (in legal jargon this is sometimes termed “taking the piss”).

To be clear, we know that almost everyone is doing their best and is dealing with this situation extremely well. We aren’t sharing this information to scare or threaten but rather to help you understand what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and why.

Where to get support

Today’s announcement will be good news for some and pretty awful news for others. The lockdown can be exhausting and it’s natural to feel a range of negative emotions. With that in mind, we are unapologetic in repeating a message you have probably heard a lot recently: It’s important to ask for help. Looking after your mental health is a responsibility you owe to your friends, family, clients and colleagues as well as yourself.

Options include:

  • Talking to colleagues, friends or family
  • Calling Vitae on 0508 664 981 for free, confidential and professional counselling
  • Calling or texting 1737 for support from a trained counsellor
  • Accessing resources from the Mental Health Foundation
  • Using the contact and support resources and links on the Government COVID-19 website
  • Contacting VCNZ or NZVA for advice and support.

For work-related issues, Employment NZ’s guidance on COVID-19 alert levels and the workplace is a useful resource for employers and employees.

We’re expecting things to change over the next few days and we’ll be back in touch as new information becomes available. In the meantime, please look after yourself and contact us if you have questions, comments or concerns.