A number of people at Cranswick Country Foods, Ballymena have recently tested positive for coronavirus. During the week of 17 August, a decision was made by the Public Health Agency (PHA) to declare all workers on-site to be close contacts. This required all workers to undergo coronavirus testing and then self-isolate at home for 10 or 14 days, depending on test results. The ultimate decision on the actions required to manage this COVID-19 incident in Cranswick and the wider Ballymena community lies within the remit of the Chief Medical Officer and Minister for Health. DAERA has facilitated, and will continue to facilitate, communication between all parties involved and provide expert advice on our areas of competence as required.
The last day of processing was Thursday 20 August, and the site as a whole closed on Saturday 22 August. On Friday 28 August, a site visit was carried out by PHA, Health and Safety Executive and DAERA officials, and all bodies were content with the measures in place to protect the health and safety of staff. The factory reopened on Friday 4 September and the food business operator is planning measures to deal with the backlog of pigs which has built up on farms.
I thank the Minister for his response and also for his endeavours in relation to this issue. He mentioned the backlog of pigs. I am fully aware of this and have had constituents contact me in relation to it. Has the Minister had any discussions with processors about trying to clear the backlog?
We were speaking daily with Cranswick through the Public Health Agency for at least a week about managing the closure and, indeed, the reopening. I welcome the fact that Cranswick has committed to clearing the backlog, and it is working closely with the farming community. We will offer all the support that we can to ensure that Cranswick can carry out its processing. We will also seek to assist it in getting the approval to go back into the Chinese market, which is critical to ensuring that the price rises to where it was at before this happened.
On the issue of processing plants, the Minister, I am sure, will be aware of the huge fire that happened in Kilkeel in my constituency last evening, in which up to 2,000 pigs unfortunately were destroyed. Can he confirm whether his Department has been in contact with the farmer in question to see what supports it can offer?
Absolutely. I have asked Veterinary Service to get in contact with the owner. It is an absolutely awful thing to have happened. I hope that it will be able to ensure that it can give qualitative advice and support to the individual on animal welfare and all of that.
I think that we need to be very careful. First, I will say that Cranswick as a company has behaved very responsibly throughout the COVID period. It has put in place mechanisms and measures to avoid the spread of COVID, and it is fairly evident that a lot of the COVID that appeared in the plant came inwards, as opposed to its going outwards. A lot of it came from the community into the plant, just as it came into Antrim and Newtownabbey police stations and just as it came into Craigavon Hospital.
People therefore need to take responsibility for themselves outside of their place of work. When they are in their place of work, personal protective equipment (PPE) and the Perspex separation are there. A lot of work has been done to ensure that separation takes place in the canteens, as people enter work and as people leave work. There has therefore been a massive amount of work done by food companies. Given that the agri-food industry supports around 10% of our employees, it is incredibly important that we support our processing plants, because they are providing jobs. Many of the people who work in them come from outside of Northern Ireland, and we need to support those people as well. There are major challenges there, however. I commend the work of Cranswick, and I trust that, very soon, it will return to the Chinese market and that the plant will get back to full normality as early as possible.
Our veterinary division in particular provided massive support to the Public Health Agency. In giving advice on PPE, Perspex and all the separation that should take place, it played a leading role in all the meat plants across Northern Ireland. Its staff supported the meat plants with expertise beyond their veterinary expertise. If you were to speak to any of the meat companies, I think that they would indicate to you that the support that they have got from DAERA's veterinary division has been massive, and I commend the division for that.
There are 12,000 pigs a week that go through Cranswick. It closed two weeks ago and it opened on Friday. Some 2,000 pigs went through on Friday. In the meantime, there are two other key plants in Northern Ireland, one in Cookstown and one in Cranston in Londonderry. They were hoping to be able to pick up around 4,000 per week, which left a backlog of roughly 8,000 each week. That is significant and many farmers contacted me directly to indicate the problems that they faced. Young pigs were being born and would then normally move into an area, the weaners move into another area and the fattening pigs move into yet another area, so that was causing a backlog and considerable problems on those farms.
In my written statement to the Assembly on 30 June, I outlined the allocation of £21·4 million of the £25 million support package to support farmers and growers in the dairy, beef, sheep, potato and ornamental horticulture sectors, which have been hardest hit financially as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I also stated that I wanted to be prudent with the funding as we cannot rule out the possibility of further market disturbance as a result of the pandemic with the need for additional support to farmers and growers.
For that reason I have retained a budget of £7·2 million based on the residual funding of £3·6 million — which is from the £25 million agreed by the Executive — and £3·6 million that was reprioritised from within my own Department. This would allow me to address the additional issues and challenges that COVID-19 may present in the weeks ahead. My officials and I are monitoring the situation and continue to consult with industry stakeholders to assess the impact of COVID-19 across all sectors.
Should any future support schemes be required, their development would require a robust business case and an available budget, and follow the same design principles as the current schemes. These include ensuring good governance; that support is for evidence-based losses caused by market disturbance; that it is targeted at those impacted most financially; and avoids unnecessary bureaucracy and complies with legal requirements, including state aid rules.
I thank the Minister for that answer. When I tabled my question I was unaware of the scheme that was coming forward. I congratulate the Minister for the very full package that has been announced. However, in looking at that there is probably one area that has been missed out, namely the broiler breeders. Will you give any consideration to that area going forward given that you have captured most of the other areas in the very generous scheme that you have announced?
I thank the Member for the question. My Department has been meeting with industry stakeholders and we are aware that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on hatching egg producers. Many of those eggs would have been sold to the Middle East and to the Far East, for example. The standard of Northern Ireland chickens is rated right across the world therefore the demand for the hatching eggs is something which is sought by many people. However, those markets have dried up as a consequence of COVID-19. State aid rules previously prevented me from supporting the sector because we were not looking at losses that had happened, but at projected losses. My officials are continuing to monitor the impact on the sector and losses are becoming more evident. Therefore, I think that in the future — certainly in this financial year — we will be able to give significant consideration to this.
I have certainly had the conversation. It is very complex with regard to providing support to that sector. The wool actually accounts for a very small proportion of the profitability in the sheep sector and the lamb prices have been remarkably good. I reserved the £7 million expecting a double-dip for lamb and beef, but they have been remarkably good over the summer.