It can at times be too easy to underestimate the breadth and depth of UK infrastructure that protects the welfare of those living within it. It’s an issue that Andy Parker, a member of the enforcement team at the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD), encounters numerous times each week. “About 60% of the people we contact who are breaking the regulations just don’t realise they are doing anything wrong,” he says. “Often they haven’t heard of us. It’s something we are going to work on; we have created social media channels for the VMD to supplement our Gov.uk presence now and we want to spread the word.”
For the uninitiated, the VMD is the Government agency responsible for protecting animal health, public health and the environment by ensuring veterinary medicines in the UK are safe and effective and are sold and administered in accordance with the Veterinary Medicines Regulations (2013). Andy’s team reviews reports about illegal veterinary medicines and unauthorised products that are being sold – often online – and responds by using a risked based enforcement strategy to tackle those breaching the regulations, this can include applying for websites to be suspended. If the site is associated with the .UK domain, Nominet is informed and responds accordingly.
“There is this misconception that law enforcement are the ‘bad guys’ somehow, but that comes from misunderstanding,” Andy says. “We are offering protection; at the VMD that’s protection for our pets, livestock, wild animals, the environment, and also people to some extent. Unregulated medicines given to animals could enter the human food chain and cause serious damage to public health.” The misuse of medicines can also lead to antimicrobial resistance, resulting in serious issues for animals, the ecosystem and potentially humans too.
The VMD sits within DEFRA – the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – and works closely with their investigators and Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) to identify and engage with those selling or distributing unauthorised products. The enforcement process involves a fair amount of travel (in non-coronavirus times) to visit sites where regulations are being broken or to engage with other LEAs; it’s an aspect of the role that Andy particularly enjoys.
“No two days are the same,” he says “and the variety of the job and opportunities to travel nationally, getting out and about to meet people and chat to them about the regulations, is a satisfying part of the job.” There is also, of course, time spent in the office, following up on the reports about websites or adverts on social media and online marketing platforms.
The selling platforms work closely with the VMD, applying appropriate filters to catch any suspect adverts and delivering warnings on behalf of the Enforcement Team. The relationship with Nominet is also a close one, with most members of Andy’s team having visited the Oxford office to meet the .UK registry team and understand more about the process of certifying that a .UK domain is being used for criminal activity.
“I think we’ve really strengthened our relationship with Nominet over the past year,” says Andy, “and the process for reporting is really straightforward. We can use the online reporting tool to flag any domain names that we believe need suspending and Nominet acts on our reports swiftly. The speed is a real benefit to us, Ultimately, we can escalate things to the Crown Prosecution Service, but that could take months to resolve.”
Andy speaks with broad knowledge and enthusiasm, something that surprises him slightly – he only joined the VMD seven years ago after many years working in retail. “It was my dad who suggested joining the VMD,” Andy explains. “At the time he was in the inspectorate and suggested it would be an interesting place to work. I started in the Licensing Admin team and have worked my way up, moving into enforcement about a year ago.”
The industry switch was smoother than expected; “the VMD felt comfortable the minute I joined but I also sense I’ve grown into the role over the years and kindled a passion for this work.” It has also given him more stability and financial security for his family: he has two children, aged four and seven. As true for many families, the experience of lockdown and remote working has been intense at times, but largely enjoyable. “I’ve missed being able to travel and conduct visits, but working from home has been fine for our team,” he says. “My children have been quite easy to entertain and everyone has been very understanding about the demands of childcare when we’re all locked down at home.”
Working environment aside, the lockdown had little impact on the workload or the number of reports received by the VMD. The bigger picture, however, shows an upward trend: “Online platforms are a real growth area for us as more and more people use them to buy and sell products. We spend the majority of our time responding to reports about medicines being sold on there, again often by people who don’t know they are breaking any rules,” Andy explains. “They might have leftover medication from a pet prescription and think it’s ok to sell it on for someone else to use with their pet. We need more outreach and education to help people understand what they can and can’t do – and introduce them to the VMD and the regulations.”
There is plenty to keep Andy occupied and fulfilled in his role and, as he is only just over a year into his enforcement role, he has no plans to move on. That said, his future might see him hopping across to enforcement departments of other LEAs, such as the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare produces Regulatory Agency). “Enforcement is definitely a satisfying place to work,” he says. “It really feels like we are making a difference by what we do each day, helping to protect this country and those within it. I can’t see me wanting to do anything else now.”
Find out more about Nominet’s domain policies on our website.