woman in mask on train coronavirus

Source: Pexels

The plan outlines how the coronavirus crisis demonstrated the “strength and fragility” of food supply chains

A Covid-19 recovery plan has been launched by the Food and Drink Sector Council (FDSC) in a bid to get the industry back on its feet ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January.

The report is aimed at governments and policymakers in Westminster, Cardiff, Holyrood and Stormont, council co-chairs NFU director general Terry Jones and FDF CEO Ian Wright told The Grocer. The pair said it had already been given “a good hearing”.

The plan takes a 12-month horizon and will feed into the long-term National Food Strategy work. It outlines how the coronavirus crisis demonstrated the “strength and fragility” of food supply chains, but proved government and the food industry could work together to respond quickly and effectively to keep the nation fed.

“In the past three months, the Covid-19 crisis has dramatically reinforced both the strength, and the fragility, of our food system,” the report said.

“The challenge now is to successfully restart all sectors of the industry, protect food industry employees and customers, and support businesses in each sector of the food chain through to recovery. And to do so with an understanding of changing public sentiment and new behaviours and needs.”

The seven key recommendations for a successful recovery outlined in the plan are:

• A phased, co-ordinated and flexible restart – with adequate planning time for each change

• The extension and tapering of industry support schemes

• A united effort to support the industry’s worst-hit sectors

• Protecting the health of food industry employees and ensuring reliable availability of labour

• Protecting of the UK’s food supply chain integrity and competitive position

• Accelerating plans to increase UK exports

• Building on the successful government and food industry collaboration

Details include measures already implemented by government such as the temporary removal of VAT on food and drink out of home and reducing the two-metre distancing protocol when supported by Sage.

It also calls for government to review whether a full return to pre-Covid competition law is “necessary or desirable”; to monitor food imports to prevent any compromise of UK food safety and animal welfare standards; and to keep food industry-specific PPE protocols under review and track continuing availability of supply.

The plan also underlines the importance of securing an “ambitious” free trade agreement with the EU and ensuring an orderly end to the transition period.

FDSC co-chair Terry Jones called for food and drink businesses to be prepared for change.

“Moving from ­membership of the customs union, even to an all-singing all-dancing FTA, is going to require a change in approach,” he said.

“My message loud and clear, whether it is to farmers in Cumbria or the CEOs of big manufacturers, is we need to prepare for change regardless of whether there is a deal or not.”

Fellow FDSC co-chair Ian Wright added there was going to be friction. “The question is how much friction and how bad is it.”

“Everybody needs to be prepared for a world where there is a cost for every export consignment and a cost for every import one, as well as the time taken. It is a different world. Our members – Terry’s members, retail members – need to be ready for that.”

However, the coronavirus proved the resilience of the food supply chain in the UK, as well as in Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and other EU nations, Wright said.

“During the worst of the crisis, the food kept flowing, ingredients kept flowing, the ports stayed open, with virtually no impact. And that is a huge tribute to the system, but it is not a predictor for what will happen on 1 January.”

The FDSC Covid-19 recovery plan highlights the need to build on the collaborative approach adopted by industry and government during the crisis.

Jones said the spirit of collaboration, data sharing, the role of technology and the relaxation of competition law in the public interest had been “game changers” for the industry.

“Culturally, I wouldn’t want to lose what we have put in place in last 15 weeks,” he added.

Wright echoed the statement and called for the culture of collaboration to persist where it is in the public interest, particularly on a provision to continue with relaxation of competition law, which allowed supermarkets to work together to co-ordinate opening hours and share data during lockdown.

“It is not in the public interest in every case, but it is sensible to allow different players in the same part of the chain to collaborate if there is a specific reason to do so, for example if local lockdowns are enforced,” Wright said.

The plan also underlines a need for continued and targeted support for specific parts of the industry, particularly the hospitality sector.

“For parts of that industry to survive we are going to have to see targeted measures after the furloughing scheme has finished,” Wright added.

“That has been done in theatre and the arts, in effect continuing the furlough scheme over a longer period. We clearly need that to happen in areas where it isn’t economically viable for the pub or restaurant or venue to open. And by extension, where we get local lockdowns, there has to be some form of assistance for those businesses put into a prolonged second period of cold storage, when they have no way of controlling their own destiny. Government has to look at that and it is something we will continue to look at.