The NFU Scotland has also called for the majority of self-catering businesses to be able to re-open under social distancing rules to re-start the agri-tourism industry and warned that the “significant postcode lottery in broadband capability” in rural parts of the country is acting as a barrier to adapting to the post-Covid world.
In written evidence to Holyrood’s Rural Economy Committee ahead of NFU Scotland’s director of policy, Jonnie Hall being quizzed by MSPs, the union has warned about the impacts the pandemic is having on farming and agriculture businesses.
The NFU has highlighted “some impact on the availability of PPE for staff working with pigs and poultry” amid high demand for the gear from health and social care works during the Covid-19 outbreak.
The statement adds: “PPE is always needed to protect workers working within potentially hazardous environments, but stock has become hard to come by due to a redirection of these materials to the front-line health workers.
“PPE for use in the pigs and poultry sectors has now been added to a Scottish Government-specified list of essential uses which NFUS hopes will ease pressures on supplies for the sector.”
The union has stressed that the “almost immediate cancellation of months’ worth of bookings” for agri-tourism businesses has had a huge impact on the sector.
The evidence adds: “For some farm-based tourism ventures, profits made from the diversified arm of the business significantly support the income of the farm itself as well as cash flow.”
The NFU is backing calls for self-catering businesses to be able to re-open ahead of the indicative July 15 date, issues by the Scottish Government.
It said: “Whilst NFUS recognises the Scottish Government’s desire to be cautious in its approach to the re-opening of the hospitality sector, it is the view of NFUS that for the vast majority of providers of self-catered accommodation as part of agri-tourism ventures, safe social distancing is entirely possible and as such, providers of self-catered accommodation could potentially be considered as a priority in an earlier phase of lockdown restrictions being removed.
“The financial losses incurred by these businesses due to continued closure are significant in the agri-tourism sector and NFUS considers that where it can be demonstrated that businesses can safely operate within the spirit of the phased lockdown requirements, they should be encouraged to do so.”
The Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers (ASSC) has called for accommodation providers to be able to re-open sooner than July 15.
ASSC chief executive, Fiona Campbell, said: “As representatives of Scotland’s £723million self-catering sector, the ASSC welcomes the Scottish Government’s indicative reopening date of July 15 for tourism businesses, after what has been a highly challenging time for all those involved in the industry.
“However, we also believe that owing to the nature of self-catering that allows for easier social distancing compared to other accommodation, we are able to return to operating sooner than planned, with robust cleaning protocols in place.”
She added: “Scotland’s self-caterers have grasped the task of preparing to open again and in doing so have created our own stringent and thorough protocols for cleaning our properties which we have shared this with industry stakeholders and the Scottish Government.
“We are ready and able to get Scottish tourism moving again.”
NFU Scotland has acknowledged that the sector will need to transform in the post-Covid climate and already, “lockdown and social distancing has forced many agriculture activities online”, such as farm shops and livestock auctions.
But the organisation added: “This sudden shift to online has only underlined the significant postcode lottery in broadband capability and speed across Scotland’s rural areas.
“Whilst NFUS members are enthused by the opportunities afforded by technology to propel their businesses into the future, the lack of digital capacity in much of rural Scotland is a significant source of frustration for NFUS members.”
The NFU has also warned MSPs that “serious oversupply issues” for dairy farmers during the first few weeks of lockdown meant that “some farmers were asked to dispose of milk that couldn’t be collected or designated for a processing facility”. The evidence adds that the overall economic concerns and a “lack of export opportunities” could have a “long-term impact on price” which could lead to “long-term viability issues for many farmers and processors”.
Fruit and vegetable growers across Scotland “do not have nearly enough workers to cover themselves for the peak periods”, the NFU has warned, adding that “the industry still desperately needs access to workers from the EU as well as from the countries allowed to participate in the UK Government’s Seasonal Workers pilot scheme where it is safe and permittable for these workers to travel to the UK”.
The statement adds: “NFUS is working with UK Government posts overseas to ensure that those who had been contracted to travel to the UK, either from an EU member state with a valid job offer or from outside the EU as part of the seasonal agricultural workers pilot, are facilitated to travel as smoothly as possible.”
Looking ahead to restarting the industry, the NFU has warned that “recovery is likely to take many years” – with businesses set to “change and adapt to what is and will be a very new operating environment which will not be business as usual”.
The statement adds: “NFUS believes there is significant opportunity for the sector within this challenge.
“The resetting and restarting of food production, processing and distribution, while meeting a raft of major government policy objectives, will provide the catalyst for change. NFUS’s primary goal within the longer-term economic recovery is to secure a profitable and sustainable agricultural industry that acts as a cornerstone to economic, environmental and social benefits.
“The current pandemic has created myriad challenges for agriculture and food supply which will take significant effort to overcome.
“NFUS feels it is vital to highlight the future relationship negotiations with the EU as a further factor which could upset the equilibrium of the supply chain as much, if not more, as the current pandemic or other variables such as unforeseen weather events.
“With all sectors of the agricultural industry already fragile, NFUS believes it is legitimate to query how the planned date of departure at the end of 2020 will compound existing problems. NFUS asks the committee to query UK Government on where the capacity within government is to deliver an orderly exit on 31 December 2020 in terms of government’s engagement with industry.”