pigs in lorry

“Less than 100” butchers have applied for the UK’s temporary visa scheme despite 800 being made available, a Home Office minister has confirmed.

The pork sector was said to be in “meltdown” this week as it works through a mass cull of animals due a shortage of abbatoir workers.

A visa scheme for butchers opened in October after the UK government acceded to pressure from the meat industry to try and avoid such an incident. The scheme allows workers to come into the UK until December 31 and work for up to six months.

However, two months since it opened, there are still only “dozens” of applications, according to immigration minister Kevin Foster at an Efra committee meeting on Tuesday. He said the scheme could be “used immediately if people wanted to do so” but many businesses had not applied to be a sponsor as required.

Foster added a “couple of hundred” HGV driver visas had been taken up out of the 5,000 visas made available. This has risen slowly since October when Conservative party chair Oliver Dowden said about 300 applications had been received and “just over 20” fully processed.

Butcher visas are in stark contrast to the poultry sector which has used around a “couple of thousand” of the 5,500 temporary visas made available in October, said Foster. He suggested the difference was due to the levels of engagement within the pork sector. “We’ve offered further engagement, we’ve offered support. [It’s been] good with the poultry sector. Pig sector – a bit different.” 

His comments came during a fractious committee meeting in which Neil Parish, Efra committee chair, told the minister to “please take it seriously”. He suggested the response to labour shortages was “too little, too late and the government failed to see these problems coming”.

A large backlog of pigs continues to trouble British farms. Abattoirs are struggling to find staff and reduced Chinese demand means processors are accepting fewer pigs for slaughter.

Agricultural groups have criticised the government’s “short-term fixes”, which are failing to find a long-term solution to the supply crisis. Zoe Davies, CEO of the National Pig Association, said this week that the UK’s pig sector was still in “meltdown” as worker shortages continue to impact the ability to process the number of pigs on farms.

“Already 60% of the pork eaten in the UK comes from the EU – it would be a travesty to see this figure increase as more healthy UK pigs are culled on farms and their meat wasted.”

Agricultural groups have previously said that while the visa application itself was relatively straightforward, the bureaucracy and paperwork required is extremely time consuming.

The British Poultry Council previously told MPs that one poultry processor had to find three staff to complete applications full time, taking up over 125 hours at a cost of around £110,000.