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Press releases

Coronavirus: Environment Secretary says furloughed workers could be asked to pick fruit amid overseas labour shortage

George Eustice said panic buying at supermarkets had ‘subsided’ in recent weeks.

3 min read

Workers who have been furloughed by their companies could be asked to pick fruit to plug a shortage of migrant labour amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Environment Secretary has revealed.

George Eustice told the daily Downing Street press conference that while there had been no “serious interruption to international trade flows” of food, workers whose jobs had been put on hold by their companies could be asked to fill gaps in Britain's rural workforce.

He said: “We’re… acutely aware that we’re about to start the British season in fresh produce in soft fruits and salads. 

“We estimate that probably only about a third of the migrant labour that would normally come to the UK is here and was probably here before lockdown.

“And we are working with industry to identify an approach that will encourage those millions of furloughed workers in some cases to consider a second job helping get the harvest in in June.”

Mr Eustice added: “It’s not an issue at the moment since the harvest has barely begun. But we do anticipate that there will be a need to recruit staff for those sectors in the month of June.”

PoliticsHome reported last month on fears that crops could be “left to rot” in fields as coronavirus travel restrictions prompt a shortage of seasonal workers.

A National Farmers Union spokesperson said at the time that industry was “extremely concerned” about its ability to hire workers, while the Country Land and Business Association called on the Government to provide “urgent” assistance.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has since launched a new ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign aimed at encouraging the British public to work on farms during the harvest period, amid warnings that the workforce will be hit hard by the global pandemic. 

The campaign has been backed by industry groups including the NFU, British Growers and the Association of Labour Providers.

But some firms have already resorted to chartering jets to bring seasonal workers from outside the country as part of a so-called “land army” tasked with keeping food on the table.

Elsewhere at the daily Number 10 briefing, Mr Eustice said panic buying at supermarkets had “subsided”, with stock sitting at normal levels for “several weeks”. 

Staff absence levels at supermarkets had also fallen, he confirmed.

Responding to the press conference, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard said ministers needed to “to set out clear plans for how nutritious and culturally appropriate food will be provided” to vulnerable people in isolation.

And he added: "Part of that plan must mean setting up what support Government will give to those working in the food supply sector, in particular farmers who are worried about crops rotting in fields due to lack of agricultural labour."

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