Easing turkey worker rules 'puts economy above health', peers warn

Each year around 5,500 seasonal workers arrive on farms to help during the busy festive period
Each year around 5,500 seasonal workers arrive on farms to help during the busy festive period

Bringing poultry workers into England from Eastern Europe during lockdown puts economic considerations above public health, peers have warned.

Seasonal farm workers arriving to carry out work ahead of Christmas are currently able to work as soon as they arrive, the government recently announced.

The workers, based mainly on turkey farms, can work during their 14-day quarantine period, a measure which took into effect from 17 November.

But the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has expressed 'considerable concern' over the new guidelines, as most workers were from countries with a 'very high' infection level.

The exemption is likely to be used by around 5,500 workers from several Eastern European countries, mainly Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.

Currently, there is no requirement for them to provide evidence of a negative Covid-19 test before travelling, nor are they required to be tested on arrival at their place of work.

Additional guidance to farm employers recommends they should ensure workers do not leave their designated accommodation for the first 14 days after arrival.

The government said the measures were introduced to 'prevent significant economic damage to an important UK sector', and 'ensure an adequate supply of food for the Christmas period'.

But the Lords' Committee has raised the question over how employers could enforce the new guidelines, particularly when it is only guidance and not law.

In a weekly report, it noted that the criteria for testing were dependent on workers displaying symptoms and thereafter volunteering for a test which, if positive, would prevent them from working for at least 10 days.

As meat plants have been a focus of infection in both the UK and Europe, peers expressed 'surprise' that no special measures were in place for this work scheme.

Their report concluded by further suggesting that the “exemption appears to put economic considerations above those of public health”.

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock, Committee Member, said: “At a time of national lockdown, we find the exemption granted under these Regulations particularly extraordinary and concerning.

"It appears that no tailored programme of testing for these poultry workers is envisaged to address any potential infection risk, including that of asymptomatic transmission

“The exemption appears to prioritise economic considerations above public health."

It comes as turkey producers issued a stark warning that the Christmas supply could collapse without an urgent exemption for non-UK seasonal poultry workers.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) said the seasonal turkey sector could not survive without non-UK labour.

Foreign labour is needed for slaughtering turkeys, a job that demands high-skilled professional labour to ensure animal welfare standards are maintained.

Defra Secretary George Eustice said last week: “It’s essential that farmers get the support that they need at this busy time of year, so it is good news that seasonal workers will be able to get straight to work once they arrive in the country.

"The run-up to Christmas is particularly important for farmers and food producers who need more workers on their farms to meet the festive demand.”