January 11, 2021
UK meat industry calls for early vaccination of workers to protect food supply chains
The United Kingdom's meat industry has called for its workers to get early COVID-19 vaccination in order to maintain food supply operations in the country.
The industry warned that absences during the pandemic, coupled with disruption at ports, could hit food supply chains.
An early vaccination call for supermarket staff was also made by the boss of Sainsbury's.
The government said the food industry remains "well-prepared" to make sure people have the food they need.
The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said the coronavirus and disruption at ports due to new systems brought in after the Brexit transition period were "a severe challenge to the industry and to the smooth running of the nation's food supply chain." It argued that frontline workers in meat factories should get early vaccinations due to the risk of a rapid spread of the new strains of the virus among key workers.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the BMPA, said it would be logical to prioritise key workers in the food industry. "As the new coronavirus variant takes hold across the whole of the UK, we are hearing widespread reports of rapidly rising absences in the food supply chain," he said.
Some firms supplying supermarkets "are seeing a tripling of staff having to take time off work through illness or enforced self-isolation," he added.
"The key food supply chains ought to be prioritised," he said. "All food industry key workers should be prioritised [for vaccination]."
Sainsbury's boss Simon Roberts also called for early vaccinations for key workers. "My view is that priority has to be given to those that need it first," he said. "Those on the frontline should be part of that as and when capacity becomes available."
Absence rates for Sainsbury's staff are lower than at the peak of the crisis, but are rising, and have stepped up in the last few days, he said.
The Sainsbury's absence rate is currently 8%. The business has 172,000 employees.
Asda said that it had seen an increase in employees self-isolating and shielding in line with the rising UK infection rate.
However, it said that absence rates were still lower than at the peak of the pandemic.
"We are taking proactive steps to manage colleague absences by retaining temporary colleagues hired over the Christmas period and are bringing in additional temporary colleagues in those stores that need them the most," the Asda spokesman said.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs said: "As we have seen in recent months, the UK has a large, diverse and highly resilient food supply chain.
"We continue to closely monitor the situation and are working closely with the food industry on the workforce and absence related challenges presented by the pandemic."
They added that the food industry remains "well-prepared" to make sure people across the country have the food they need.
UK ports have seen disruption due to the effects of the coronavirus on trade and new systems brought in after the Brexit transition period.
Roberts said that, so far, the flow of goods from Europe is in decent shape, but there had been some problems in sending food to Northern Ireland.There is still some backlog in general merchandising, he added.
However, Scottish seafood exporters warned that they had been hit by the "perfect storm of Brexit disruption".
"Weakened by COVID-19, and the closure of the French border before Christmas, the end of the Brexit transition period has unleashed layer upon layer of administrative problems, resulting in queues, border refusals and utter confusion," said Donna Fordyce, chief executive of Seafood Scotland.