Industry representatives have welcomed Government’s inclusion of ‘food producers’ on its critical workers list to help negate the impacts of COVID-19 on labour.
Recent weeks have seen supermarket shelves across the UK stripped bare as consumers prepare for self-isolation, with retail demand for milk, eggs and meat reported to have increased by up to 30 per cent in some cases.
The Department for Education (DfE) has defined ‘food producers’ as ‘all those involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery as well as those essential to the provision of other key goods, such as hygienic and veterinary medicines’.
DfE said: "Children of parents critical to the coronavirus response have the option to attend school if they cannot be safely cared for at home."
But the department recommended parents keep their children at home ’wherever possible’.
The inclusion of ‘food producers’ on the list published March 19 has been warmly welcomed by farmers and industry bodies following lobbying efforts.
But it has also highlighted the irony of Government’s recent immigration policies, with ‘low skilled’ workers now being identified as vital in a national crisis.
Further clarification on labour has also been called for, regarding filling vacant positions, contingencies for those off sick and guidance for on-farm measures to ensure social distancing, such as banning all but essential visitors and protocols for vets.
Dairy UK chief executive, Dr Judith Bryans, said the announcement offered ‘much needed relief for the dairy sector’.
Dr Bryans said: “This [announcement] is essential in allowing crucial staff members, vital to the production and distribution of much needed dairy products, to continue to work without worrying about having to take time off for childcare now schools’ have closed.
“But key issues remain and need to be addressed to help the supply chain get food to shelves.”
She called for the ‘derogation on drivers’ hours to be extended for tanker drivers collecting milk’ and further clarification on the ‘support - financial or otherwise - available to dairy businesses and farmers as a result of the COVID-19 crisis’.
An NFU spokesperson said: “Maintaining a safe, secure supply of home-grown food and the smooth running of our food supply chains is absolutely critical during this difficult time and we are pleased that workers involved in food production have been included in the key workers list.
“Farmers and processers are working around the clock to maintain stability and continuity of food for the nation and it is good news that the government has recognised the important role they play.”
The National Pig Association (NPA) said it was ’welcome news for the pig sector’ but recognised ’not all schools will be in a position to open, so farmers will need to work with their local authority to resolve any issues’.
The organisation called for ’home testing kits’ to be available for farmers and farm workers so those who ’test negative can get back into work to negate any animal welfare or wage issues’.
A spokesperson for the British Meat Processing Association (BMPA) said: "With an estimated 30 per cent of workers in our sector potentially being compromised without school child care, we are really pleased food sector workers have been designated as key workers and can keep the public supplied with meat."
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and the British Veterinary Association issued a joint statement, to help the veterinary profession interpret the guidance released by Government.
The organisations’ summarised: "At this time the provision of public health and the maintenance of food production need to take priority, and veterinary surgeons working in these areas should be considered key workers.
"Veterinary surgeons working in emergency care can also be considered key workers.
"This will not apply to every veterinary surgeon in clinical practice, and practices may need to consider rationalising their services to achieve this."