Plans to establish a veterinary school in Northern Ireland may finally come to fruition as pressure mounts up for the department to find enough vets to run customs checks at ports.

Permanent Secretary Dr. Denis McMahon told Stormont's Agriculture Committee there was "a real issue with resources" within the department.

"We have increased the size of the department, and it has been a struggle to get that... the department is still not at the capacity at which it needs to be.

"We have increased our numbers from about 2,900 to about 3,200 at this time," he said.

Chief veterinary officer Dr. Robert Huey explained the main problem was the availability of trained veterinary professionals and environmental health officers.

"To operate 24/7 in Belfast and Larne, we estimate that we need 25 vets, 75 portal inspectors and 12 admin staff to do the documentary checks that we talked about," Huey said.

"In addition to that, the local authorities estimate that they will require 30 additional environmental health officers (EHOs). Some of that will be for export work.

"We will need about 18 plant officers and three fish officers. The local authorities have made good progress, and most of their staff — their environmental health officers and additional plant and fish inspectors — are already in place.

For my staff, I need 25 vets. We have just recruited 14 new veterinary inspectors, and nine of them are going directly into the port. I already have six there, which brings me to 15. For the rest of the veterinarian resource, we will move some others directly into the port.

"We are training 53 vets across the department in total. They are through their first phase of training; there are three or four phases to the training, one of which is being provided for free by the European Union.

"It comes down to the number of vets pulled out of the field. When you divide it across the 10 divisions, it is manageable."

For the 75 portal inspectors, I have 10 Group 1 staff available from the end of the brucellosis programme.

One of our successes is the eradication of brucellosis from Northern Ireland. The surveillance programme has come to an end, and that frees 10 Group 1 staff who can be redeployed to the port immediately.

"We also have a recruitment campaign, and 14 people are coming from the recruitment campaign. They are coming in at the moment.

"The others will have to come from across the service. I have around 160 or 170 Group 1 officers to draw from. Some of them will be permanently located at the port; some will work there on a part-time basis and provide cover."

'A faculty may not be that far away now'

Huey told MLAs he had been "in discussions" with Queen's University and Ulster University about the possibility of a faculty commencing in Northern Ireland.

"It has been one of the consequences of Covid that those discussions have not progressed as both sides would have liked, mostly because the universities have been swamped by their own Covid problems and have not been available for discussions," he said.

The discussions are reinvigorated, and I am hopeful, having worked on and thought about it for some time, a faculty may not be that far away now. There are real, concrete discussions going on.

Sinn Féin MLA Declan McAleer, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, said the plans could bring more opportunities for local veterinary students.

He said: "Local vets play a crucial role in supporting our farmers and in the abattoirs to safeguarding the health and welfare of animals. Veterinary practitioners are central to the agriculture industry and their role is crucial to the economy.

“Brexit has created serious challenges for the profession and the implementation of the protocol will place huge demands on vets, particularly for certification.

This pressure is compounded by our reliance on citizens from other EU countries to fill veterinary positions, and unfortunately, many of our veterinary students train in other EU countries and then continue to work overseas.

“The news that discussions with Queen's and Ulster University on the development of a veterinary faculty here in the north are at an advanced stage is very welcome and will hopefully create more opportunities for our local veterinary students," he added.