NFU responds to food worker exemptions

Tom Bradshaw

As the government tries to avoid food supply problems, some food workers have been told they can apply for exemption from COVID-19 quarantine rules.

Effectively, there are two schemes that have been announced:

Scheme 1: Exemption for specific food manufacturers, supermarket depots and other limited areas

This scheme was announced on 23 July by Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, and Health Secretary, Sajid Javid.

Initially for supermarket depots and food processing and packaging, the scheme is intended to exempt workers from self-isolation regardless of individual worker vaccination status, provided the individual takes daily tests and these remain negative.

At the time of the announcement, some sites had already been identified, with up to 500 further sites having potential to be included.

Since the announcement, news coverage indicates that other key areas will be included, eg. haulage, due to extreme workforce pressures being experienced in these areas.

What this means for agricultural and horticultural businesses

A key factor in deciding who will be covered by any further expansion is whether or not workforce issues at the workplace in question will directly (as opposed to cumulatively when taken together with other businesses) effect supplies of essentials. Another factor is whether the business has or could put in place the required testing facilities.

These two factors are likely to limit relevance of the scheme to agricultural and horticultural businesses given that impact on essential supplies is more likely to be met where a business is large in scale and that businesses with testing facilities already set up are more likely to find this scheme useful.

Nonetheless, if any agricultural or horticultural businesses believe the scheme may be relevant to them, email Defra with queries.

Scheme 2: Exemption for ‘critical services workers’ who have had two vaccinations

Advice on the scheme for critical services is covered on gov.uk. As detailed, the scheme is not intended to prevent all disruption and due to public health considerations, the scheme exempts very select groups of workers.

Defra has outlined that in relation to the agri-food chain, the exemption will generally only apply in the following areas, meaning that it will be of limited applicability to agricultural and horticultural production:

  • Manufacturing maintenance engineers, quality assurance technicians, and highly skilled supervisors, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Designated health and safety and fire marshalls at food processing, manufacture, and distribution sites, subject to all other mitigations being exhausted.

  • Official vets, meat hygiene inspectors, poultry health inspectors, environmental health officers and certifying support officers necessary for preventing immediate risk to food safety or animal welfare in processing plants, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Quality assurance technicians, laboratory staff, line operators, process operators, technicians, by-product room operators, meat processors with Certificates of Competence, flour millers, feed millers, butchers, trained retail packers, and meat machine operators at primary processors, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Qualified livestock hauliers for primary processing, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Poultry catchers on farms, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Quality assurance technicians, laboratory staff, forklift truck drivers, loading bay/despatch bay staff (including specialist order pickers), line operators, process operators, and technicians at food manufacturing sites, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Forklift truck drivers and loading bay/despatch bay staff (including lollopers, shunters, and specialist order pickers) at retail distribution sites and wholesalers, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Specialist reach truck drivers, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted and only where the use of this type of truck is essential in the movement of critical goods.

  • Official vets and environmental health officers at port health authorities/border control points, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Official vets and certification support officers for food and animal product exports, subject to all other mitigation options being exhausted.

  • Official vets for TB testing, subject to all other mitigations being exhausted.

An online form for making a request to DEFRA is now available.

NB: The scheme is only expected to run for a short duration until 16 August 2021 when it is expected, regardless of industry, that all fully vaccinated close contacts will be exempt from self-isolation.  

Read the NFU reaction

Responding to these announcements, 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-19 security while keeping food supply moving.

Farmer and grower concerns

“It is important to think about the whole food supply chain right back to farm because they produce the food that keeps processing plants and distribution centres going.

"We are hearing reports from farmers and growers who have robust Covid-19 security plans in place but are increasingly concerned about workforce shortages, especially as the rise in Covid-19 cases coincides with the start of harvest and when the picking and packing of fruit and veg is in full swing.”