Comment: We must vaccinate everyone in food production as quickly as possible

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council 

The New Year’s hopes of COVID-19 relenting, or the restrictions easing, have been dashed with a third lockdown in England in early January. It is fair to say that this was far from unexpected however, given the number of hospitalisations and high death toll. There is a new hope however in the form of the vaccine, with the first doses being rolled out at a faster pace than any other country in Europe. The vaccine is the only viable path to the restoration of our liberties that have been temporarily curtailed in the interest of public health, as well as the return of social activity that drives our economy, particularly in the hospitality sector.

The UK Government has called for a national debate on the second phase of the vaccination programme, with a view to deciding which groups of workers will be prioritised for vaccination. The BEIC has called on the Government to classify those who work in food production, processing, and manufacturing to be classed as key workers. No formal decisions have been made on which groups will be prioritised, but it has been suggested that police officers, and teaching staff are to be included in this list. Shopkeepers have also been identified as a potential priority group, as they have constant interaction with members of the public and work hard to ensure the food farmers produce ends up on the shelves and into the shopping baskets of consumers.

It is vital that the Government looks to vaccinate all those that work in agriculture and production of food as quickly as possible, to ensure the continued and uninterrupted supply of food to the public. Due to the highly sensitive environment in which food production and processing takes place, when there is an outbreak of COVID-19, it can greatly impact the production chain. The self-isolation of entire teams of staff can be acutely felt. These difficulties have been compounded due to the pressure on the supply of labour because of Brexit, and by travel restrictions rightly put in place to control the pandemic.

The food and drink industry is the largest component of the UK’s manufacturing sector, with the British egg industry worth £1.07bn a year to the UK economy. The food service sector accounts for approximately 21% of the UK egg market and has suffered considerably as a result of the closure of the hospitality sector during lockdown. This has had a knock-on effect to the egg processing sector also. Making food production workers a priority group for the second phase of the vaccination rollout would not only help ensure a safe and secure supply of food to the public, but it would provide our industry with some much-needed reassurance and security during these incredibly difficult times.

Avian Influenza also continues to present a major threat to the industry. In fact, there had been more cases in the UK before the end of 2020 than there were during the whole of the 2016/17 AI ‘season’, which should serve as a stark warning that the risk remains real, not just to our commercial flocks, but also to the hobby/pet/non-commercial flocks. This only goes to reinforce the message that exercising the highest standards of biosecurity at all times, is key.

In terms of the current requirement to house poultry flocks, by 8 February we will be halfway through the 16-week period in GB (whereby FR eggs can maintain their marketing status). In Northern Ireland the half-way point will be 17 February. BEIC has already put down the marker to Government that there should be a review at this point and again stressed that we must not go beyond the 16-week period. As we entered the housing order based on a risk assessment, it makes sense that we will exit based on a risk assessment. It could well be that the risk assessment is inconclusive at the half-way review, but unless there are signs of a second wave of AI cases across Europe and the UK, it would be logical to assume that by the second half of March the risk to UK poultry flocks will be much lower than it was in early December. Clearly, BEIC wants to avoid the situation we experienced in 2017 when the then 12-week clock ran out and we were forced into taking the actions we did to protect the free range sector.

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