Northern Ireland's vet shortage appears to be coming to a head as Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots warns as many as 200 vets and 400 other staff could be needed to oversee checks at ports unless action is taken to ease red tape.
Minister Poots warned taking veterinary staff from other divisions in the region could have adverse implications for animal welfare locally.
Last week, chief veterinary officer Robert Huey told the Agriculture Committee that while he currently needed 27 vets to run checks, he only had 12.
Dr. Huey warned he number of checks was likely to increase from around 2,400 to more than 10,000 a week when the Grace Period extension ends.
"That does not leave much room for people to take leave or to have a proper work-life balance. That is a real issue for me," Dr. Huey said.
"We are doing about 325 CHED [common health entry documents] checks by a vet a day, and that is a lot," he said.
NI veterinary school
It comes as a working group established to shape plans for Northern Ireland's new veterinary school begins its work - but it will be a long way off before the first locally-trained vets are available for work.
The group will have input from staff from the two universities as well as the support of DAERA officials. Its recommendations are expected to be published in around six to nine months.
"There is an increasing acceptance that the Northern Ireland agri-food industry requires a more assured supply of veterinarians than is available from the existing sources," Minister Poots said.
Poots suggested the proposed school could take the form of a collaboration between the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, pharmaceutical companies and a university.
"A tie-up between a university that specialises in veterinary courses and the agri-food sector and the pharmaceutical sector for agri-food would therefore be hugely beneficial for research and for encouraging young people to take up a locally available veterinary course," he said.
"It is an expensive course to undertake, so universities have to take all those things into account when bringing one forward. Nonetheless, it would be hugely beneficial for Northern Ireland as well as for whichever university or collaboration of universities took up the opportunity.
'You don't train vets in 6 months'
However, Poots explained that while a local veterinary school was part of the long-term solution, Northern Ireland faced an immediate challenge.
"The protocol has certainly created pressure, because, if things do not change, between DAERA and local council staff, we will require around 600 officials at ports," he said.
"We would be looking at needing close to 200 vets, and they just do not exist. You do not train vets in six months. You train vets over five years, so the vets do not exist for that job.
"The problem is this: if we draw vets from other services, are we damaging animal welfare? Are we taking away from practices vets who are out on farms or vets who are engaged in small practices?
"We are left in this ridiculous position in which vets would be checking food that has come here for years without being subject to checks and is going to be consumed in Northern Ireland, leaving them unavailable to do things that are required for animal welfare. It therefore certainly does have a very significant impact."