Quarantine restrictions aimed at preventing overseas visitors bringing in new cases of Covid-19 and the government’s controversial immigration bill could lead to shortages of workers to harvest vegetable crops and pick fruit, representatives of the UK’s food producers have said.
Industry leaders called for ministers to think carefully before bringing in rules that would make it harder for seasonal and migrant workers to enter the UK to take up jobs in fields, farms and food processing plants.
They made their remarks moments before the environment secretary, George Eustice, called for British people to apply for jobs that would normally be done by foreign workers.
He acknowledged that only about a third of workers from eastern European countries who would normally come to the UK for the work were here already and only “small numbers” would continue to travel.
“One thing is clear and that is that this year we will need to rely on British workers to lend a hand to help bring that harvest home,” he told the daily Downing Street press conference.
Embarrassingly, as Eustice made his appeal, the Pick For Britain website set up by the government in conjunction with farming and agriculture bodies was not working. Earlier in the day, Prince Charles had called for a second world war-style army of workers to come forward to stop crops going to waste.
The challenges the pandemic has presented to food producers were the focus of a hearing of the environment, food and rural affairs select committee n Tuesday.
Industry leaders explained that shops and supermarkets ran out of food early on because the algorithms used by suppliers did not take into account the dramatic change in shopping habits that the coronavirus crisis caused.
Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, told the hearing the food distribution network in the UK was “completely banjaxed” by the change in consumer behaviour in the early stages of the crisis.
“The fantastic just-in-time processes rely on using immediate previous behaviour as a predictor of the next behaviour, which is fine unless the next behaviour is completely different – which it was,” Wright said.
“So the algorithms were completely banjaxed and as a consequence of that shelves were empty and the distribution system began to be incapable of dealing with the demand.”
Wright said the crisis had shown how vital the food industry was. “If you can’t feed a country, you don’t have a country,” he said. “That has been borne out in this crisis in massive order.
“We don’t think the current immigration bill addresses the sort of country we want to be. I think it is surprising that, given the lessons of the last last eight or nine weeks, the immigration bill is back in parliament unchanged, given what we have learned about the people working in food and drink, in distribution centres and the care sectors.”
Calling for the home secretary, Priti Patel, to reconsider the bill, he said: “It would be a shame if the legacy of this crisis was an immigration system that didn’t work.”
The government is drawing up plans to require travellers arriving in the UK to isolate for 14 days as part of an effort to limit the number of new Covid-19 cases.
Wright said: “I think there is a big concern about access to labour in the UK for seasonal workers. The quarantine regulations that are being talked about at the moment are a big concern.
“It’s difficult to see how you are going to get around that for those who are coming in – normally about 60,000 workers come in for the harvest. It’s going to be difficult to see how they are going to arrive if they are due to arrive during the quarantine period.”
Nick Allen, the chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said the crisis showed that food security should be taken “really seriously”.
He said up to 70% of the people who worked in the plants he represented were not UK citizens. Allen said it was possible British people would take up jobs that used to be done by foreign nationals, “but we have huge concerns and would really like to think more flexibility will be brought in”.