Coronavirus: food industry praised amid Government advice ‘vacuum’

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

The food and drink industry has been praised for its ability to handle the impact of COVID-19
The food and drink industry has been praised for its ability to handle the impact of COVID-19

Related tags: coronavirus

MPs have praised the food industry for developing its own guidance in the “vacuum left by Government” when the coronavirus pandemic began to be felt in the UK.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s (EFRA’s) new COVID-19 and Food Supply​ report has claimed the Government was slow to provide guidance for key workers in the food supply sector. That included advice about the use of personal protective equipment and the implementation of social distancing measures.

It commended the industry for rapidly developing guidance in the vacuum left by Government and urged the Government to ensure that, in any future disruption, guidance could be issued more rapidly.

The report also criticised the Government for not being prepared for the impact of coronavirus on the food supply chain and demanded a review of food sector resilience.

‘Commendable’

While the Committee concluded that, in many areas, response to food supply disruptions from the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was “largely commendable”,​ it said the Government must learn lessons, particularly in relation to the foodservice and food supply sectors. 

The report suggested the hospitality and foodservice sectors might take more than a year to recover from the forced closure prompted by the coronavirus lockdown and further financial difficulties were likely.

The document stated: “The Government should work with producers, processors and wholesalers to understand their concerns and monitor the health of food and drink suppliers, particularly SMEs, over the next 18 months as supply chains restart.”

The EFRA Committee has also called on the Government to continue to fund the £5m-a-year FareShare project to redistribute otherwise wasted food from farmgate to frontline community groups.

The Committee’s paper recognised food insecurity and food waste were significant problems even before the pandemic and demanded the appointment of a new cross-departmental minister for food security.

However, it also warned future crises that affected how much food came into the country, such as a disorderly end to the Brexit transition period or climate change effects, could pose greater challenges.

Catch-up

Neil Parish MP, chair of the EFRA Committee, said: “Despite warnings from other countries, it seemed as though the Government was constantly playing catch-up in trying to support the food industry during this crisis. The Government’s actions to lock down the country and close businesses were necessary, but they had huge impacts on the food supply chain. I unreservedly thank all the key workers for their essential role in keeping the nation fed during this time.

Parish added that there were misunderstandings in Government about where – and how – people were going to get their food just before and during lockdown.

“Food banks and other food redistribution organisations have reacted heroically to a disturbing spike in demand for food aid, but this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better,” ​he said.

“At the same time, and shockingly, millions of tonnes of food are wasted every year in this country. The Government must continue to fund efforts to redistribute surplus food at the farmgate to those who need it.”

Key recommendations of the COVID-19 and Food Supply Report:

  • In the event of a potential second wave, communication regarding food supply in shops should be clearer between Government departments and between Government and the public.
  • The Free School Meal voucher scheme should be made more flexible to consider the realities of families dependent on free school meals, and should recognise the importance of community-led responses.
  • Anticipating the end of the Brexit transition period, food supply disruptions, including the impacts of consumer behaviour, must be urgently factored into contingency planning.
  • Consideration for people with disabilities and other vulnerabilities must be built into the Government's emergency planning, so that future crises do not disproportionately impact certain disadvantaged groups.
  • The Government should consult on whether the ‘Right to Food’ should be given a legislative footing. Not only must the Government respond to the upcoming National Food Strategy within six months, but the Agriculture Bill should be amended so that food security assessments occur annually, rather than every five years as proposed.

Related topics: COVID-19, Operations

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