How food and drink producers became key workers in the wake of COVID-19

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Source: Food and Drink Federation

Among the many heroes keeping the country running during the COVID-19 outbreak have been thousands of UK food and drink production workers. Whilst other manufacturing sectors have ceased or reduced production, much of the food and drink sector has seen demand rocket, not just in the early days or as a result panic buying but also due to the army of home bakers and cooks using the enforced period of home-cation to develop their skills.

The FDF, the industry body for food and drink manufacturers, has been supporting its members throughout the crisis. It has not been good news for all. Whilst some are enjoying sales uplifts, others have struggled to maintain their production due to staff absence and cashflow. Others have seen their out of home customer base collapse and supermarkets cancel promotions and reduce ranges.

Over the years, FDF has developed positive working relationships with its sponsor department Defra (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and many other parts of Government. We have benefitted from daily calls with Ministers and senior civil servants to flag issues that are placing stress on our members and the supply chain.These have been invaluable for easing the path on many difficult issues.

An early ‘win’ was the classification of food and drink production operatives as ‘key workers’. This important designation ensured that they could access limited childcare provided by schools and had letters or authorisation to travel to work. In the early days of the crisis, many commuting workers were challenged by the police and this designation proved important to ensure that they could continue to attend sites.

Guidance on factory procedures during the outbreak emerged gradually. Due to the already high standards of hygiene in food and drink facilities, the sector was felt to be less of a risk. However social distancing presented many with challenges, particularly at older sites and early confusion over the closure of workplace canteens would prove a significant issue for many.

Producers are now looking forwards towards the restart, whenever that will be. Some have furloughed staff, some have repositioned their staff but all will be looking to a return as close to normality as possible. Cashflow has been an issue for many smaller businesses, not all have enjoyed prompt payment and they have been understandably reluctant to take on additional debts through loan schemes to ease the stress.

Some businesses have used the period to adapt, consider new markets and new, direct routes to customers. Some have shown their adaptability and creativity such as FDF member Emily’s Crisps who faced with a shortage of footfall to view a newly launched outdoor advertising campaign managed to attract attention on social through adapting clever poster messaging.

Every business will have seen its challenges – whether it’s too much demand or too little but as the UK takes steps towards a new normal, whatever that looks like, food and drink workers will continue to be #hiddenheroes.