COVID-19 inspections: What the agri industry in NI needs to know

Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry is like every other business sector facing significant challenges due to the latest COVID-19 restrictions, and it is crucial that those working in the sector are aware of the current regulations and liabilities that need to be considered and adhered to in the coming weeks and months ahead.

With furlough extended now until the end of March, farm businesses should plan ahead for further challenges in regulatory practices.

The sector faced a further blow this week following the publication of a report by the National Audit Office which found that there is “a very high risk” the Northern Ireland protocol may not be implemented by its January 1st deadline, compounding difficulties faced by farm businesses who import and export goods.

BLM are advising farmers to ensure their processes are adapted to meet the needs of Covid-19 farm inspections, and in doing so mitigate wider risks posed by the implementation of Brexit.

DAERA Minister Edwin Poots explained in April of this year, that his department, in consultation with the local agri-industry and colleagues across the UK, had drawn up guidelines for the safe delivery of on-farm inspections and tests here in Northern Ireland. The Minister has described the visits as essential for the industry in securing the region’s food supply, which is more significant than ever with Brexit import challenges and ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.

In implementing farm visits, the Minister laid out the following key measures and advice:

- When anyone comes on to a farm, vet or otherwise, farmers should protect themselves and others by following the advice from the Public Health Agency, including social distancing, self-isolating and staying at home if affected by coronavirus symptoms of either a high temperature or new, continuous cough.

- The ongoing assurance of animal and public health through the application of official controls should be kept under review as the situation develops.

- Additionally, where it was reported or suspected that there had been, or there was likely to be, potential or a significant impact on public health, animal health or pollution of the environment, it is known that the pausing of inspections will not apply. In those cases, DAERA staff will undertake site inspections on farms (or elsewhere) to assess and resolve any issues.

Inspections have been carried out at farms over the past few months with many more expected to take place between now and the year end and farmers have thus far been subject to recommendations from government agencies which include potential closures.

Minister Poots did introduce legislation to allow the use of alternatives to on-farm visits where possible, however, the process is ongoing, at times virtually through the use of digital means.

The latest raft of restrictions, set to be discussed this week by the NI Executive place additional pressure on local farmers as NI faces temporary closure of businesses, with others facing curfew restrictions that will be in place for at least the four-week period. Farmers and their businesses are now contending with restrictions which could impact upon operations including the assembly of more than 15 people with justification for ‘essential travel’ now a legitimate consideration for all businesses.

Ulster Farmers’ Union Victor Chestnutt has said that the sector is up to the challenge of ‘feeding the nation’, in light of the most recent restrictions, therefore remaining compliant is crucial for both businesses and the wider supply chain at this time. Tara McSorley from BLM has laid out some of the steps which should be applied by those working within the agriculture sector at this time:

- Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment in line with latest government guidance

- Have documentation to evidence the reasonably practicable measures that have been put into place to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission

- Be prepared to answer questions concerning risk assessments, systems of work and training, handling possible outbreaks within the workforce and measures in place to enforce and oversee the new measures.

- Engage with Unions who will be in consultation with government in the coming weeks.

Whilst these steps appear relatively simple, the ever-evolving Government guidance, means that some in agriculture could understandably struggle to ensure the workplace is meeting the most up-to-date guidance. Furthermore, for some it is proving costly to put new procedures in place, only for the guidance to change once more. There are also some concerns that the jurisdiction a business has over ensuring COVID guidance is followed has not been properly clarified.

Agriculture was an industry on the frontline in the early days, working to meet increased demand and keep the UK fed, as supermarkets saw panicked shoppers stockpile. Whilst the overarching rules regarding PPE, increased hygiene and social distancing apply, the industry had its specific set of concerns regarding workplace safety as demand increased, particularly as our understanding of how susceptible livestock and animals are to the virus evolved.

It’s therefore vital to ensure your business is following COVID-secure guidance and is mitigating necessary risks ahead of time, as you are unlikely to receive notice that an inspection is forthcoming.

In many ways, COVID inspections must be approached in the same manner as a standard HSE inspection: prepare, prepare, prepare.

Whilst you may not be given notice of an impending visit, by following COVID-secure guidance as early as possible, where reasonably practicable, and ensuring it is up-to-date with evolving advice, an organisation can take the first steps to meeting HSE and Government standards.