Furlough Plan to Save Fruit Harvest

Millions of furloughed workers will be asked to work the fields this summer as part of a government plan to help the harvest.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the move was necessary as the usual team of largely migrant workers that pick the UK’s fruit and vegetables were not in the country due to the pandemic.

The Press and Journal reported last month on fears that crops could be “left to rot” in fields as coronavirus travel restrictions slowed the supply of seasonal workers.

Mr Eustice, speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing, 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.

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

He 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.”

National Farmers’ Union vicepresident Tom Bradshaw welcomed the move, he said: “A dedicated website has been created by the government, and farm businesses and recruiters looking for staff are currently posting these vacancies on the site.

“There will be thousands of vacancies opening up on farms across the country in the coming weeks and we have already seen a fantastic response from the public wanting to pick for Britain this summer.”

NFU Scotland horticulture chairman James Porter, who grows soft fruit near Carnoustie, said: “The first Scottish strawberries of the season are now in Scottish supermarkets and a 10,000 strong army of Scottish and non-UK seasonal workers will still be needed to pick Scotland’s valuable soft fruit and veg this summer and autumn.

“When Covid-19 continued to spread and a nationwide lockdown was on the cards, NFU Scotland worked quickly to set up a vital web portal for farm businesses affected by the restriction of movement and the Scottish workforce who were either furloughed or had lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“This service had an immediate impact and had more than 43,000 views on the dedicated webpage, leading to a number of the advertised jobs being filled.

“Despite these roles being filled there is still a need for large numbers of pickers to come over from Eastern Europe in the months ahead including returners, needed to play a major role helping to train this new workforce and to ensure that the picking season is a success in Scotland.

“Throughout the crisis, NFU Scotland has also used its web pages, social media, blogs and news releases to issue guidance to all farming businesses on the need to fully adhere to and comply with social distancing and keep those picking safe. Refreshed guidance from Scottish Government on this has been in the pipeline and must come soon.”

The announcement came as the coronavirus death toll in UK hospitals hit 20,732.

The UK is now only the fifth country to pass 20,000 coronavirus deaths, behind the US, Italy, Spain and France.

That figure does not include deaths in the wider community, such as in care homes, which means the true toll will be higher by several thousand at least.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, speaking after the latest round of figures was released, said that social distancing measures would remain in place for “some time” to come.

Mr Raab, who has been standing in for Boris Johnson while the PM recovers from coronavirus, said people will have to get used to a “new normal”.

“We won’t just have this binary easing up of measures. We will end up moving to a new normal,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr show.

“We need to take a sure-footed step forward which protects life but also preserves our way of life. So we are very focused on doing the homework that can allow us to do that.”

He said it was “inconceivable” schools could reopen without measures in place to stop the spread of the disease, but said ministers were looking to ease restrictions on outdoor activities.

“We do want to look – when it is safe, when it is responsible – at ways to allow more outdoor activities to take place, but again we have got to have the evidence that that is a sure-footed step, doesn’t allow coronavirus to get a grip back on the country.”

Mr Raab did suggest that social distancing measures already being seen in food shops and other businesses that have remained operating could be expanded to non-essential businesses if they were to reopen.

Asked whether there was any chance of people being able to play sport outside this summer, Mr Raab said this would be “very difficult because of the level and scale of interaction”.

But he added: “I think the professional sport may be different because of the scale of testing that they would be able to introduce.”

On the possibility of testing people arriving at UK airports, Mr Raab said this measure might be introduced but he “can’t say it with any certainty yet”.

“The advice that we got… at the outset when we took up our social distancing measures, is that it wouldn’t make any difference from a public health point of view,” he said.

The comments came as it was announced Boris Johnson would be returning to work at Downing Street this morning. The PM spent a week in hospital, including three nights in intensive care, after being admitted with Covid-19 on April 5 and has been resting at his countryside residence, Chequers, since being discharged.

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