As the Covid-19 vaccination programme rolls out across the country it is worth reflecting on the current status of controls currently in place across the UK poultry meat industry. As a crucial part of feeding the nation we, like all the other food sectors, have kept on going throughout the pandemic. The ups and downs have been huge, from our #KeyWorkers being applauded as #FoodHeroes to entire plants being closed due to disease outbreaks. Our people and their safety has been our first priority and for the last year many companies have faced serious operational challenges due to necessary Covid related absences.
Towards the end of 2020 the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), supported by the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) approached food sectors with the idea of trialling mass testing using rapid-test lateral flow devices (LFD) to help manage the spread of Covid within workplaces. Up to March 2021 Government is supplying all the tests with the participating businesses contributing the facilities and other infrastructure and equipment. Both DHSC and Defra should be praised for the way they have engaged and supported the sector across this period.
Many British Poultry Council members took up the offer and with some now months into it there is consensus that mass testing has been a considerable help in understanding and managing Covid-19 in the workplace. The schemes are voluntary but we have seen excellent take-up from the workforce, and how it is generating confidence and trust. With all the workplace interventions already present the testing is allowing businesses to better manage the needs of employees.
There were some concerns about mass testing and it is worth acknowledging them. The first was that a site would lose a critical amount of its workforce. We know many businesses are on a knife-edge in terms of employee numbers, and concern over losing essential positions is always present, but we are not aware of production threatening absences. The mass testing is identifying a steady flow of positives (including asymptomatic positives) along with others who will need to self-isolate, but the flow in and out of businesses has so far been manageable.
There was a fear that some workers would not participate and would see it as a threat to their income if they could not work. Businesses have taken it upon themselves to acknowledge this issue and have worked closely with their workforces, unions, and agencies to provide support across all employees. On the whole the need for health and wellbeing – and the reassurance that mass testing provides – has been uppermost in peoples minds, but this is an issue that will continue to be monitored carefully.
A concern for businesses is the impending increase of cost when Government stops providing the tests in March. Two test per week for large workforces (approximately 30,000 people work in slaughterhouses and further processing plants across the sector) would represent a significant cost at a time when production is under immense pressure to deliver affordable food. This ‘Covid-mode’ that businesses have been in since last year is not sustainable and cannot be absorbed indefinitely by companies. Government could help us immeasurably by continuing to provide the LFD tests until such point as vaccinations reach the food sectors.
So the question is at what point in the queue for vaccinations are food sectors? Beyond the immediate priority cohorts, the strategy for continued roll-out becomes opaque. To see a clear strategy is the first step and Government must start sharing their thinking in this area. Knowing where we are in the line will be incredibly helpful to businesses in their continuity and contingency planning. At this point it doesn’t matter too much if that is front, middle, or back of the queue, but not knowing inhibits the ability to plan effectively.
It could be argued that with the existing interventions and the introduction of mass testing then poultry meat sites are as close as can be to managing Covid. There is however a balance to be struck with continued security of food supply. As a sector we have done as much as possible in terms of Covid control, and even though we have faced some near disasters we should still consider ourselves extremely lucky to not yet have had multiple sites having to cease production. To give some context, the weekly throughput of a single large site represents around 8% to 10% of national chicken meat production. To have one close is a massive challenge, but having multiple sites closed is unthinkable.
Knowing that vaccinations are coming – whatever the timetable – would be a huge boost. It would allow businesses to plan and invest knowing there is an end in sight. When it is our turn we can quickly re-purpose the mass testing facilities to deliver vaccinations, because ultimately it is about our people, our families, and our communities and how we support each other. #FoodHeroes