Coronavirus: A message from the NFU dairy board chairman

The NFU's dairy team is working across the supply chain to do everything it can to help as the COVID-19 starts to bite. Hear from national dairy board chairman Michael Oakes:

Last week was one of those mad weeks where things escalated at such a rapid pace. Only last weekend people were just starting to stay away from pubs, cafes and restaurants. By Monday, a number of dairy processors were ringing us to say their orders had dropped off a cliff as foodservice businesses started noticing large numbers of people staying at home. By Friday, the Government had fully ordered the complete closure of pubs, cafes and restaurants thus almost completely shutting down the foodservice sector.

At the same time, shoppers were descending on supermarkets and putting enormous pressure on supply chains. The British Retail Consortium said yesterday, that there is now an extra £1bn of food in people’s homes in the last few weeks, mostly as yet uneaten. One retailer said to me this week that it is like dealing with a constant Christmas Eve, without the 10-month lead in to plan for it and build stock.

For the dairy sector, there have already been some massive ramifications. The speed at which those massive changes have been shunted down the supply chain is simply unprecedented. Less than a week after things started ramping up, there are already some dairy farmers staring at a hole in their bank account. Dairy farmers are unfortunately very much used to this. In times of crisis they are often used as a risk management tool, but it is fundamentally wrong and unsustainable.

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But for now, the industry has a massive challenge on its hands. The British public are looking to us all in the supply chain to keep the shelves stocked, during a time of national crisis. We have seen many pictures of empty shelves of milk.

For me, it shows that the public want our products and we have to respond to the challenge. The issue here is not availability of milk. The rapid switch to disruptive buying puts enormous pressure on the supply chains. We have spent most of this week on the phone to everyone involved in the dairy supply chain, and Government, trying to ‘oil the cogs’ and ensure we are doing everything we can to respond to the demands.

What has been really impressive is just what can happen, when everyone is moving in the same direction and we work together as an industry. The supply chain has been united in the asks of Government and things have moved rapidly. We asked for relaxation of drivers’ hours rules. We asked for key worker status in the food sector. We asked for Government funding for those affected. Within days, and sometimes hours, our calls have been answered. We have so much more to do, and we are only just at the beginning. But we know that collaboration and relationships are key to get us through the next few months.

I know that many dairy farmers are concerned. I have had enough calls over the past week to get a real sense of the mood, especially among those who have already been hit financially. The time will come for us to make some major changes to the way our industry works. And we will hold people to account.

However, for now, we have to remember the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and that more and more people are contracting and sadly dying from COVID-19. People are worried about their families and how they will get through the coming months. We all have a vital part to play in managing the country through a national crisis. Let’s show them what we can do.

I for one will not rest until we find a way through this, and I am confident we will come out the other side a stronger industry. For now, we appreciate any support and help you can give and we ask that we all try and pull together during this time of need. I hope you and your families stay safe and well.

Michael Oakes

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