The farming and meat sectors have delivered a muted response the Government’s announcement last week that food workers will be exempt from isolation rules.
The announcement came in response to warnings from across the food industry that the huge number of absences due to NHS Test and Trace self-isolation requests could soon lead to food shortages.
Under the new system, in selected businesses, fully vaccinated workers identified as close contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 will be exempt from self-isolation as long as they carry out daily COVID tests and test negative.
Defra Secretary George Eustice said the government had identified about 500 ‘key strategically important’ sites in the food supply chain, including the supermarket distribution depots and some large manufacturers’ facilities.
It is expected that up to 10,000 workers could qualify for the exemption, although individuals who qualify will need to be named by their company.
The Government guidance states: “In the small number of situations where the self-isolation of close contacts would result in serious disruption to critical services, a limited number of named workers may be able to leave self-isolation under specific controls for the purpose of undertaking critical work only.”
The guidance adds: “This policy only applies to you if your employer has received a letter from a government department on which your name is listed. In this event you will be able to leave self-isolation to undertake critical work. In all other cases, you should continue to self-isolate as now.”
This process is only intended to run until August 16 2021, when fully vaccinated close contacts will be exempt from self-isolation.
You can read the full guidance HERE
Key details missing
The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said the industry was ‘still missing key details and clear guidance on exactly how this will apply to individual companies and workers’.
“According to Mr Eustice, this includes about 200 food production sites. However, at this stage we don’t know who is on that list.
“It’s also not yet clear which workers at other sites that are not on that list will be exempt from self-isolation. In this separate scheme, we understand that companies will need to apply for exemption for individual workers on a job-by-job and person-by-person basis but we don’t know what jobs would be eligible.
“Right now, we urgently need Government to publish more information giving clear, unambiguous guidance on which sites are exempt, which job roles qualify for exemption and exactly how these new rules will be applied.
BMPA also questioned the Government’s decision to end the provision of free lateral flow testing kits to companies last Monday just as the ‘pingdemic’ started to take hold.
Speaking on Sky News, BMPA chief executive Nick Allen highlighted the lack of clear information about the different Government schemes and explained how the situation is exacerbating an already critical shortage of workers in the industry as a result of Brexit.
Mired in paperwork
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies welcomed the move, but she said it was unclear how it work and who it would apply to.
“While we are pleased to see the announcement, we are concerned that the process seems so mired in paperwork, with every individual needing to be approved for exemption rather than just having ‘key worker’ status, we wonder if the Government will get through the applications within the 10 day isolation period!
“Hopefully, all the pork processing plants have been listed as they will need to have been notified by Defra before they can start to apply.
“The jury remains out on the extent to which this will alleviate the debilitating labour shortages across the food.
“We must not lose sight that the issue runs much deeper than the ‘pingdemic’.
NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said: “While this is good news and will help ease pressures for many businesses within the food supply chain, such as processing plants and distribution centres, it doesn’t go far enough to avoid disruption further down the chain – particularly for those who can offer more Covid security while keeping food supply moving.
“We are hearing reports from farmers and growers who have robust Covid security plans in place but are increasingly concerned about workforce shortages, especially as the rise in Covid cases coincides with the start of harvest and when the picking and packing of fruit and veg is in full swing.”