27 April 2020, 14:46 PM
  • The Covid-19 crisis has tested food and drink manufacturing as never before, but the industry’s sense of purpose and the deep collaboration seen across the food chain will endure, says Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer of the Food and Drink Federation
“The food chain’s response to Covid-19 has been a triumph”

Food and drink manufacturers have moved quickly to identify the impact of Covid-19 and have adapted fantastically. Our sector has long been regarded as part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, and the Covid-19 crisis has underlined this. Food and drink manufacturers have done an incredible job at meeting the huge spikes in demand for food;  sustaining quality and unprecedentedly high production levels while managing increased absence levels. Truly they are #hiddenheroes.

These high rates of employee absence – thankfully now on the decline – brought considerable pressure to bear on our members. By week three of lockdown, manufacturers were experiencing staff absence averaging 20 percent.  As some parts of manufacturing faced demand doubling, others – principally those serving hotels, restaurants and catering – saw their markets collapse.

FDF has worked hard on behalf of its members to ensure that, where possible, their voices and concerns are heard. An early win for the FDF was the designation of food and drink production workers as ‘key workers’. This enabled employees to access the limited childcare offered by schools. We also published a key worker letter template so that workers could demonstrate their essential roles when challenged by police, as many were in the early days. The key worker issue also exposed the differences of approach amongst the UK nations with Scotland devolving key worker childcare arrangements to local authorities.

The detailed operation of the furloughing scheme generated many questions, and as staff shortages became a critical concern, we established partnerships with third-party labour providers to help ease workforce concerns and persuaded the Government to allow furloughed workers to be redirected into other roles.

Strict hygiene standards are always critical in food and drink production, but operating safely in this new environment was always going to be a bigger challenge. We argued that PHE needed to clarify its guidance – since done – that face masks are only effective in a clinical setting. Over recent weeks, FDF has engaged constructively with unions GMB and Unite around our shared goals of employee safety and keeping the nation fed.

Consumer demand for food is now stable and returning steadily back towards ‘normal’. The focus therefore shifts to securing the right business support to ensure that all those who have lost markets can continue to be supported until they can safely return to operation. We are also working hard to make sure that Covid-19 does not restrict food and drink trade – either at the UK border or indeed across the world.

With some whispered talk of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, our next task is clear: designing and implementing the best possible return to full operation across food and drink manufacturing. This is a complex planning challenge, involving careful sequencing and the need to consider multiple inter-dependencies. Government support will need to be sustained as long as the market is not fully functioning, and we will need to move a large number of workers either out of furlough or back from where they’ve been temporarily redeployed.

But there are positives to be taken from this situation, too. The food chain’s response to Covid-19 has been a triumph. Having spent decades building a lean, highly efficient supply chain that has delivered high-quality, safe, low-cost food and drink to UK consumers, in the space of a few short weeks we absorbed in some cases a doubling of demand with only some selective and time-limited shortages on the shelves.

The food chain has worked together as never before. We argued that competition law constraints needed to be temporarily lifted in order to allow close cooperation. Once that was achieved the results were impressive.

Our long-standing working relationships with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), as well as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Scottish and Welsh Governments have grown even deeper during this crisis. There has been a deep, shared sense of purpose on both sides and an extraordinary energy to resolve the daily – sometimes hourly – challenges we faced.

This crisis has tested food and drink manufacturing as never before, and I am enormously proud of our response. I want to salute all the hidden heroes on the factory floor, in the logistics and distribution network and also all those in the back offices too. Everyone has played their part. I am also proud of the FDF team who, working from their spare rooms and tiny London flats, have provided practical support and guidance not only to our members but to the wider industry too.

This sense of purpose, of deep collaboration across the food chain, will endure. The public will be grateful for what our industry has done. Government will remember how we rose to the challenge. Once we can finally move through the personal tragedy of this virus, these will be the positive legacies of Covid-19

Tim Rycroft is the Chief Operating Officer of the FDF. The FDF is working to support members with new schemes, including a partnership with job recruitment apps to share potential opportunities across the food and drink industry. The group is also offering non-members short-term membership in order to access its resources and expert advice, including the key worker letter template, business support and exclusive offers from affiliates.