The last twelve months have been the hardest in several generations. Many people in our community have joined the millions around the world who have died or become seriously unwell. The Coronavirus has further had a severe impact on our local and national economy – and the agricultural industry is no exception.
We began the new year in renewed tough times and a third national lockdown. A new Coronavirus variant meant that NHS hospitals were under more pressure than at any time since the start of the pandemic. Yet now that we have approached spring, the success of the vaccine rollout along with falling infections and hospitalisations is paving the way for the safe and gradual lifting of restrictions. To this end, the Prime Minister recently set out the roadmap to cautiously ease restrictions in England.
On the route out of this lockdown, I think of the significant challenges faced by farmers in my constituency from the last lockdowns. Last spring, many dairy farmers faced a sudden drop in demand for milk as restaurants and cafes shut. The financial difficulties faced by some dairy farmers were stark.
Recognising this along with the fact that dairy is the country’s largest farming sector – making up 16.85 per cent of agricultural output in 2018 – the Government acted to stabilise the market and support dairy farmers by temporarily relaxing some parts of competition law and through a new fund allowing eligible farmers to access up to £10,000. Defra further backed the ‘Milk your Moments’ campaign to boost demand for milk and milk products.
The Coronavirus, of course, has not only impacted the dairy sector. Many farmers saw issues with labour shortages and logistical challenges along with the changes in demand for food products. The support from the Government has been forthcoming and has helped farmers. In addition to the Bounce Back Loans and CBILS, many farmers have been able to use the Self- Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) for help. This scheme has been extended along with the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS).
Also welcome has been the new flexibility for businesses which took out a Bounce Back Loan. From the new Pay as You Grow flexible repayment system, businesses can see an extension of the length of a loan from six years to ten years and will be able to get interest-only periods of up to six-months along with payment holidays. As I write, further support going forward is being considered by my ministerial colleagues.
Last year also saw the negotiations about our future trading relationship with the European Union. I know that getting a deal – a deal with zero tariffs and zero quotas – has been welcome news for the agricultural industry, particularly for hill farmers. I was very pleased that the Government successfully concluded the negotiations and ended uncertainty for farmers. I also do believe the deal can act as a foundation for future co-operation with our European neighbours, including on issues related to environmental protection outcomes and climate change.
Looking ahead, there will no doubt continue to be challenges for the agriculture industry. Our country must remain vigilant against new variants and the Prime Minister has said that he cannot rule out re-imposing restrictions at local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a new variant which escapes the vaccines.
While the primary objective has been to save lives and to protect public health, the Government does understand that livelihoods and the economy cannot be ignored. This absolutely includes the agriculture sector – and I will continue to represent farmers in Parliament and do everything possible to help.