On the 19th of March, as a result of the coronavirus threat, the FUW took the unprecedented decision to close County Offices during what has, for almost thirty years, been our busiest time of year – a move aimed at protecting the health of our members and staff, and their families.
FUW business as usual – ‘virtually’!
However, careful planning in the weeks leading up to the 19th, including investments in computer hardware and discussions with the Welsh Government and others, has meant our staff can continue to provide the level of service expected by members using ‘virtual’ or ‘remote’ contact from their homes to avoid face-to-face contact – whether in terms of directly dealing with members’ queries and problems, providing advice, lobbying or dealing with insurance matters – and members needing to contact FUW offices can do so using the usual telephone numbers or email addresses.
SAF assistance to continue remotely
A particular focus given the time of year has of course been to ensure we can continue to provide assistance with the completion and submission of SAF/IACS forms – each year the FUW assists members with Basic Payment Scheme claims totalling more than £60 million, and many millions more in Glastir claims, often providing invaluable help to those who are unable to access the internet services necessary to complete forms.
To overcome this problem, we have held numerous emergency meetings with the Welsh Government aimed at securing concessions which recognise the current difficulties faced by our members.
Following welcome assurances and assistance by the Welsh Government, the many thousands of members
due to receive FUW assistance with the completions of SAF forms have now been offered ‘virtual appointments’, so information on forms can be cross- checked during a telephone call, and where members are unable to access online services forms can now be submitted on behalf of members by our staff.
However, such ‘virtual’ assistance increases the risk of errors occurring, and we have therefore emphasised the need to fully recognise the exceptional circumstances now facing the industry and provide every necessary concession to allow mistakes to be corrected – including in terms of extending all deadlines.
Moreover, following discussions with the Welsh Government (which is responsible for Basic Payments) and the European Commission (which until 2021 is still responsible for paying Glastir and other RDP payments) we hope that by the time you receive this edition of Y Tir the deadline for SAF submission will have been extended to June 15.
Essential role of food production
As readers will know, within four days of the FUW closing its offices, the UK Government had announced a ‘lockdown’ for all non-essential workers, ordering families to stay in their homes for all but the most essential of tasks in a move unprecedented in living memory.
Quite rightly, farmers and other workers in the food supply chain have been recognised as ‘key workers’, meaning they can continue to go about the essential business of producing and supplying food for our nations.
The FUW has also highlighted to Government and others the various risks that may affect farmers and food production – whether in terms of an inability to TB test animals due to vet shortages, restrictions on feed availability in the event of harsh weather late in the season, fallen stock collection or a host of other problems that may occur at this busy time of year.
Maintaining long term business
While panic buying has served to temporarily boost some markets, the closure of cafes and bars quickly resulted in significant falls prices for many, and as the economic impacts of coronavirus hits home adverse impacts are likely to grow; at the date of publication a massive fall in lamb prices had already been seen, and with growing concerns about markets for exports, prime cuts, skins and the fifth-quarter, the market is under significant pressures.
The need to protect primary producers against such market volatility at a time when UK food security was therefore a major concern was a key message in letters from FUW President Glyn Roberts to UK Secretary of
State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice and Welsh Government Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths. Mr Roberts told the Ministers that “With such impacts likely to continue for many months at a time when the importance of maintaining UK food security has rapidly been brought into sharp focus, we believe it is essential that those businesses producing what is, next to water, our most essential commodity should be supported.”
Mr Roberts said a range of interventions should be considered, including forms of direct support for those suffering significant price drops, tax concessions and other possible measures that protect the viability of those businesses that feed our nation.
The letter also highlights the need to ensure food supply chains can continue to provide food to the nation, stating “…to this end we would emphasise the importance of allowing milk collectors, livestock markets, slaughterhouses and others to continue to operate while observing appropriate biosecurity rules.”
The FUW has also written to the supermarkets emphasising the importance of the long term financial sustainability of the family farms responsible for feeding our nations, and asking that they ensure the prices paid for produce reflects their, and the nations’ long term interests.
Access to the countryside
While the Government’s ‘lockdown’ has since tempered concerns over those visiting the countryside and using Rights of Way, Mr Roberts’ letter emphasised the risk posed by the movement of people from urban areas where the virus may be prevalent, saying “It is understandable why visitor numbers to rural areas have increased significantly…but the risk that visitors from areas where coronavirus is more prevalent are introducing the virus to such areas is raising considerable concern…”
Mr Roberts also stressed that for farmers and their families who have no choice but use gates and styles on busy Rights of Way to go about their daily business, the risk of picking up the virus is a major concern – particularly where pathways lead through farmyards or close to farmhouses.
In light of the concern, Mr Roberts asked that policies in terms of access to the countryside and the advice given to those using rights of way be reviewed – an issue that should not be considered to have ‘gone away’, despite the current lockdown.
Farm security concerns
Given such uncertain times, the FUW is warning members to be extremely vigilant over the coming months in terms of possible thefts of livestock or other crimes.
Circumstances where harsh economic impacts and shortages of certain commodities occur invariably lead to increases in crime, and rural and farming communities which may normally feel less vulnerable to such risks should be vigilant – if a crime is suspected or witnessed, members should contact the police immediately and under no circumstances try and approach or apprehend perpetrators.
Virus puts focus on long term food security
While we must all remain calm and act responsibly to minimise transmission of the coronavirus in the coming months, the panic buying, empty shelves and supermarket rationing of certain foodstuffs sends out a clear message about the need to protect our food security in the long term.
It’s ironic, therefore, that only a month ago leaked emails written by top UK Treasury adviser Dr Tim Leunig claimed that farmers were not needed in the UK, that the food sector is not ‘critically important’ to the UK’s economy, and that agriculture and fishery production ‘certainly isn’t’.
According to news reports, Dr Leunig is a long-standing colleague of chief advisor to Number 10 Dominic Cummings, and his comments demonstrate the type of post-Brexit future being considered within Boris Johnson’s inner circle.
In recent weeks, the FUW has laid out in no uncertain terms the dangers of such a disastrously short-sighted view, in written and oral evidence to committees in both the House of Commons and Welsh Assembly on the new UK Agriculture Bill – highlighting the dangers of trade deals which undermine UK standards and farmers while throwing caution to the wind when it comes to our food security.
And in response to a suggestion in the Bill that assessments of UK food security need only take place every five years, the FUW pointed out that the 2007-8 global food shortages developed extremely rapidly – just as the coronavirus has rapidly disrupted global supplies within just a few months.
On March 12, Westminster’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee responded by tabling an amendment to the Agriculture Bill calling on the UK Government to enshrine commitments to upholding food standards in law – a move which would also protect UK food security.
Similarly, the FUW recently responded to a UK Government consultation on proposed reductions to import tariffs, highlighting the degree to which this would threaten UK producers and UK food security by opening the door to further imports, while also undermining the UK’s negotiating position in forthcoming trade talks.
Whether the UK Government decides to change what currently appears to be an unsympathetic position on protecting UK producers and food security remains to be seen, but the current coronavirus crisis and empty shelves should come as a massive shot across the bow to those who want a future where much more of our food is imported from countries which may suddenly decide to ‘turn-off-the-tap’ at a time when we desperately need food.
For further information on the coronavirus and agriculture visit
How TB regulations are being affected by Covid-19 (Coronavirus): https://tinyurl.com/soxexq2
Red Tractor: https://tinyurl.com/qvffnks
Livestock Auctioneers Association LAA: https://tinyurl.com/tc6cc6h
Business Wales (including details of coronavirus support for businesses): https://tinyurl.com/rtxtduu