COUNTRYSIDE NOTES COVID-19 May 2020
Just when it was being predicted that Brexit might cause shortages of this and that, out of the blue, along came Covid-19 and hit us right where it hurts. It has impacted all aspects of everyone’s lives, some much more than others, and will continue to do so for a long time yet. Who could have envisaged the far reaching consequences it would have? Some things will never be the same again. It’s made us realise just how much we took for granted! Government policy is to reduce the number of unskilled workers arriving in Britain but, in the next few months, we are going to discover just how important they have been in the past to the agricultural and horticultural industries. Numbers had already decreased due to the uncertainty of what Brexit would mean for them and, last year, some crops were left unpicked because there was no-one to gather them. Much of the work can only be done by hand and this year, as things stand, there won’t be any migrant labour available to do the jobs on the land and in poly tunnels. However, because of the closure of work places and universities, there are many fit, young men and women who have time on their hands. Are they willing to get them dirty? It’s estimated approximately 90,000 workers are needed, not only for picking but also for planting and packaging. Will there be enough? Across the country 30,000 have so far signed up as part of the new ‘Feed the Nation’ Campaign. Thankfully there are machines to harvest peas, currants, hops, sprouts, onions, carrots and potatoes but so many crops can still only be picked by hand. The asparagus season has already started to be closely followed by spring onions and new season carrots pulled by hand and lettuces to cut. There’ll be strawberries that need picking and raspberries, currants, cherries, tomatoes, beans, apples, plums and pears followed by cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli and leeks. Who will be there to do it? Social distancing shouldn’t be too much of a problem in fields and large poly tunnels! In WW11 the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps were formed. Fit young land workers went off to fight, so women and old men were called to fill their shoes, which they did admirably. Covid-19 will prove to be a true test of just how willing Brits are to do land work previously done by the Eastern Europeans. It can be cold, wet, dirty, often back breaking, and maybe hot and dusty in summer. These migrants are not only experienced in the work they do but, what is more, they work quickly and efficiently. I’ve always had respect for the gangs of them toiling in the fields and often wondered how we’d manage without them. Now, perhaps we’re about to find out! Covid-19 is very likely to be the ultimate litmus test and prove just how practical Government policy is to cut the numbers of unskilled, migrant agricultural labourers.