The UK food industry is calling on the government to deliver a massive economic package to ensure it can continue to feed the nation, including seconding hospitality workers to “to plug the gaps that are already appearing on our production lines”.
Leading food businesses reassured environment secretary George Eustice at a meeting on Monday that they were currently meeting demand. Eustice said following the meeting: “The food industry is doing everything it can to rise to this challenge — and we will continue to work closely together over the coming days and months.”
But concerns have been raised with ministers and officials that bottlenecks at production depots due to the coronavirus outbreak could eventually lead to food shortages unless there is immediate government intervention.
One industry source said that without new measures, “things could get ugly very quickly”.
The chief concern in the food industry is that a labour shortage caused by workers self-isolating following the latest government health advice will cause production to slow. They are calling on Downing Street to relax the stringent social distancing measures for some food production workers.
Their fear is not so much about stockpiling, industry representatives said, but about millions more Britons now eating three meals a day at home, and supermarket demand soaring as a result.
One industry source said they had seen a 100% increase in demand for some foods in the last few days.
Denis Lynn, chair of the leading food manufacturer Finnebrogue Artisan, told BuzzFeed News: “It is vital the government steps in immediately to help the food manufacturing industry feed the people of Britain during this crisis.”
“We are currently meeting the increased supermarket demand brought about by millions of people now eating all three meals a day in the home, but we are facing an imminent labour shortage that will grind production lines to a halt unless radical action is taken quickly,” Lynn said.
His firm, which employs 640 people in Northern Ireland, makes sausages, burgers, bacon, ham, and vegetarian products for all major supermarkets throughout the UK.
The advice on self-isolation will be particularly acute for food production depots, according to two industry sources, because of the likelihood of production line workers having to self-quarantine.
Many food production workers are Eastern Europeans who often live together in the same house, one industry source said, which raises the risk of them having to self-isolate at the same time — and leaving production lines severely understaffed and bottlenecked.
The food industry is calling on the government to second hospitality workers — many of whom are likely to be put out of a job by new government advice urging people to avoid restaurants and bars — to work at food production depots.
“I am issuing a call to arms to all hospitality workers recently made redundant as a result of this crisis,” Lynn said. “We will need you to plug the gaps that are already appearing on our production lines. We need you to help us feed the nation.”
“The government must help facilitate this process. It must also announce a package of economic measures that will enable successful food businesses like ours to carry out a vital national service in these difficult times — while supporting the many hundreds and thousands of food operatives who will be off work and for whom long-term statutory sick pay will cause very real economic hardship,” he said.