Comment: Labour shortages could affect animal welfare

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council

Several weeks have passed since COVID-19 restrictions, put in place by the UK government and the devolved administrations, have either been lifted partially or in full. The figures for hospitalisations and deaths have drastically reduced, demonstrating that vaccinations have played a huge role in helping to overcome the pandemic. The number of people in the UK that are now double jabbed stands at over 40 million.

Experts have urged caution however, as infections are rising among the under 25-year-olds, many of whom are not double vaccinated, and are the most likely to choose not to take the vaccine. The government has tried to use a mixture of encouragement or even coercion, by denying entry to nightclubs and bars for those who refuse to get both jabs.

A huge problem the country faced once it had essentially fully re-opened on Freedom Day was the pingdemic. The NHS Covid app pinged large numbers of staff across the UK throughout much of July and August and no sector seemed unaffected including our own. Many trade associations, including the BEIC, highlighted the plight of the British egg industry, and worked with government to help find a solution. The British egg industry along with the rest of agriculture in the UK has experienced staff shortages since leaving the EU. We warned this would not only impact our ability to provide retailers with eggs, but also potentially animal welfare on farms.

After engagement with a range of stakeholders, the UK Government has changed the rules on self-isolation. As of 16 August (England only) fully vaccinated adults do not have to self-isolate for 10 days if they have been in close contact with someone who has had COVID-19, providing they are not suffering from any symptoms. Northern Ireland also followed suit, while Scotland and Wales already had similar rules in place. However, you still need to self-isolate for 10 days if you test positive for COVID-19, start showing symptoms, or arrive in the UK from a red list country – regardless of your vaccination status.

The BEIC, along with organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, and other major representative groups have agreed that this is a far more reasonable approach.

However, although much welcomed, the change in self-isolation policy is not a panacea for the labour supply issue in the British egg industry, nor indeed for British agriculture and food in general. The BEIC has recently been consulting with members about the significant, and in some circumstances severe, problems caused by the unavailability of people to fill an array of necessary roles, including catchers and drivers. We have been taking part in a wider food industry roundtable, alongside organisations such as the NFU and BPC, with the feedback we have gathered from our respective members, to produce a solid and indisputable case to present to government.

We will continue to make sure our message is heard that we are a dynamic industry, producing a valuable food product that the British public love and enjoy – demonstrable with our petition for British supermarkets to use only British eggs in their food – that has over 30,000 signatures. But without labour, the future success of our industry and the livelihoods of many farmers could be put in jeopardy.

In other developments, on 18 August, Defra and the Welsh Government published their response to the consultation on Animal Welfare in Transport which took place earlier this year. The key points for poultry are:

A maximum journey time of 24 hours for recently hatched chicks. This will suffice for deliveries across GB and to the island of Ireland. For exports of breeding stock, journeys longer than 24 hours will continue to be allowed with additional measures in place. Hatcheries already include hydration gels and detailed paperwork accompanies consignments. For breeders, point of lay pullets and end of lay hens, the proposal of 21 hours has been confirmed.

Our main concern is that government intends to adopt the proposal to restrict transport where the external temperature is outside of 5-25 C. This is far from ideal, considering we have provided significant evidence that this would cause delays, particularly during the winter. We will continue to fight the industry’s corner on this issue. Regarding the proposal to prevent sea transport when the wind speed is Force 6 or more on the Beaufort wind scale, government has agreed that there is not enough evidence to make specific decisions, and do not intend to take forward this proposal.

On 13 September the Veterinary Technical Group of the UK Poultry Health and Welfare Group is holding an on-line workshop on ‘Notifiable Avian Disease: Joint Poultry Industry/Government Workshop on the lessons learned in the 2020/21 AI ‘season’. The workshop is designed to update on the background to ‘forecasting’ future risk of avian influenza breaks, covering its limitations, but also include information which suggests that events such as what we saw during the last AI ‘season’ may become more regular and not occur on a 3-4 year cycle as we have seen in the past.

While significant progress has been made by industry and government in dealing with AI outbreaks in recent years, particularly in terms of communication, disease management, lack of secondary spread within the industry, the workshop will explore any ‘weak link’ factors commonly found in cases of primary introduction of AI into poultry flocks. The workshop will also consider; experience in the UK and in Europe with respect to non-notifiable AI as a cause of significant disease; and explore the opportunities and challenges for improved control of NAD following our EU Exit, as well as the new OIE AI chapter.

You can register for the event at

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