Christmas food supplies are under threat unless non-UK seasonal poultry workers are given an urgent exemption from Covid-19 quarantine restrictions, according to the British Poultry Council (BPC).

It is proposing an exemption from the end of October that would cover 1,000-plus seasonal workers from Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

If the sector cannot bring in trained workers from outside the UK, the level and quality of production will be compromised and could “collapse”, warned BPC chief executive Richard Griffiths.

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He said: “The seasonal turkey sector is vital to delivering the great British Christmas – and it cannot survive without access to non-UK labour.”

There is, he said, a shortage of UK-based workers with the necessary training and qualifications to do the work and these skills cannot be replaced without a long training and recruitment period.

If vacancies cannot be filled, it will have a significant effect on the production and cost of food, Mr Griffiths warned.

“The quantity and quality of production will be significantly compromised,” he said.

“This will pose a risk to affordability and potentially force people to go without food this Christmas. The government must ensure that British poultrymeat stays affordable and available for all.

“Losing control of how we feed ourselves as a nation would penalise British food producers at a time when we should be taking matters of food security into our own hands.”

‘Extend rules’

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) is also calling on the government to extend the rules for non-UK seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers to cover short-stay turkey-processing workers in the run-up to Christmas.

Many turkey farmers and processing businesses rely on such skilled labour in the seven weeks from November to mid-December, pointed out Norman Bagley, head of policy at AIMS.

“We have members that have employed the same people year after year. These skilled staff travel from countries such as Slovakia and Poland to live and work on the farms, processing turkeys for our country’s annual Christmas celebrations,” said Mr Bagley.

“In the case of fruit and vegetable pickers, they are allowed to include their 14-day self-isolation period within their work schedule, providing that they live on the farm. Our members have told us that they, too, provide on-farm accommodation and will also ensure that the staff have been tested for coronavirus before they arrive in the UK, as well as having provision to test once they are here.

“Time is running out. Travel plans need to be made, turkey farmers need to know that the labour is available, and farmers’ customers – be they shops, caterers or the public through direct sales – need to be confident that their annual Christmas turkey will be available.”