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Fruit and vegetable pickers are being flown from Romania to the UK to keep up with demand – despite a government plan to send furloughed workers into the fields.
An air charter company said it has arranged for a flight to bring up to 180 Eastern European farm workers to Stansted Airport in Essex on Thursday. It has been reported that up to five more flights are planned.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has previously expressed concern about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on recruitment of workers to pick fruit and vegetables this summer.
Demand for groceries surged as people stockpiled food due to the outbreak. Last week HuffPost UK revealed the government is preparing to ask millions of university students and furloughed workers to pick fruit and veg amid the coronavirus crisis in a national “Pick for Britain” campaign.
The NFU believes up to 95% of the usual 70,000-strong seasonal workforce may be lost, and that UK-based employees unable to do their day-to-day jobs will need to step in.
Vice president Tom Bradshaw told HuffPost UK: “We are nervous, but we’re hopeful the British public will step up to the challenge in the national interest.”
But it appears the pledge has come too late for at least one UK-based farming company, which has been left with no choice but to fly in European workers. It will be one of very few flights taking off or landing at any British airports, with the government advising Brits against all non-essential overseas travel indefinitely and nearly all scheduled commercial flights grounded.
Surrey-based Air Charter Service told the PA news agency that the undisclosed company had paid for Thursday’s flight. An Airbus A320 aircraft will be used, at an estimated cost of £200 to £250 per seat – much more expensive than typical air fares with low-cost carriers.
According to The Times, passengers on board the aircraft will be expected to maintain social distancing and will not be allowed to leave Romania if they show any symptoms of coronavirus. They will then be transported by bus to sites across the south-east and Lincolnshire.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson confirmed the government was not involved in chartering the flights of European workers – but did not say if the department supported the move.
They added: “We know the demand for seasonal agricultural workers will rise in the months ahead, which is why we are working hard with industry to ensure farmers and growers have the support they need ahead of this time.
“We are encouraging as many people as possible to take part in seasonal working opportunities across the country to help bring the harvest in, and recruitment efforts by industry are well underway.”
Air Charter Service confirmed that an airline based at Stansted would operate the flight, which was booked last week.
Carriers based at the Essex airport include Ryanair, Jet2.com and Tui Airways.
At least 10 other flights have been arranged by Air Charter Service to take farm workers from Romania and Bulgaria to Germany.
The company said it has seen a surge in demand for charter flights due to the pandemic, including to repatriate people stranded around the world.
It comes amid news that unemployment could increase by two million and UK GDP could fall by 35% in the second quarter of 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a scenario outlined by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) on Tuesday.