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Business / Confusion over ‘key workers’ should not be allowed to affect fish industries

FISH industry bosses are seeking clarification about who is a “key worker” as fish markets and fish farms continue in business while seeking to minimise workforce exposure to Covid-19.

Industry sources said today that a clearer picture would emerge on the impact of coronavirus on business possibly next week once the effects of the pandemic “stabilise”.

There is a pronounced split on trade between produce for the retail and domestic sector, which remains strong, and restaurant markets, which have collapsed.

In the meantime, the seafood sector wants people engaged in fish production and transport declared “key workers” who would continue to operate despite the general lockdown on movement.

Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson said that some public sector announcements had been “less than clear” on how businesses were to keep operating while observing health guidelines.

Henderson added that the picture for seafood sales depended on which sector you talked to, with the food service and restaurant outlets having “collapsed” but “the folk that’s supplying the big processing industries and supermarkets – that’s going on as normal”.

She added: “The same is the case with salmon, where it seems to be continuing pretty much as normal.”

Henderson added that one of the main issues in a “very fluid situation” was to have fish trade employees categorised as key workers, providing an essential link in the nation’s food chain.

Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson. Photo: Shetland NewsSeafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson. Photo: Shetland News

Henderson said that industry workers would continue to observe health precautions, with staff numbers kept to a minimum and other measures like shift patterns organised to keep contact minimal.

She said: “We want to make sure that folk keep safe while they continue to provide a service and that the support mechanisms that are available are made available.”

But she warned: “It will not matter what support mechanisms the government announce, it will not bring the customers back.”

Feedback from one of the main logistics companies operating from Shetland, DFDS, meanwhile was that other than restrictions on transport into Italy, the flow of fish exports was continuing as normal.

The Lerwick and Scalloway fish markets have seen landings of over 1,000 boxes on Monday and today, but discussions are ongoing as to whether a restriction should be placed on fish auctions with potentially only one auction being held per week.

According to the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) there is a continued demand for fresh and frozen salmon, but the situation would “play out” over the next few weeks.

The industry is working with regulators to ease biomass limits for sites, so that fish could be kept in the sea longer till harvest, where necessary.

The SSPO said today that it was attempting to nail down the definition of “key worker”, which depended on council area.

According to the SSPO, some councils have designated all those involved on food production as “key workers” while, in other local authorities the designations are different.

Alongside other food organisations, it is “trying to ensure that workers involved with the production, distribution and supply of farmed salmon are confirmed as Category 2 key workers”.

SSPO chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird said: “Public health is the top priority currently and salmon farmers are working to keep those who work in the sector safe while caring for our livestock. But we also recognise the importance of keeping fresh food supplies such as Scottish salmon available to households throughout this crisis.

SSPO chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird: 'The industry is committed to raising standards higher.' Photo: SSPOSSPO chief executive Julie Hesketh-Laird. Photo: SSPO

“That is why the SSPO is working with other food and drink bodies, with local authorities and the Scottish Government to try to ensure a consistent, Scottish-wide approach to this issue of ‘key workers’ to help keep essential fresh food being supplied.

“Our members are working hard to reduce staffing levels to the lowest possible number required to maintain the production of essential goods. Many local authorities are still working on and reviewing their lists of key workers and we urge them, to help keep fresh food supplies available, to recognise the importance of those who work in essential fish farming roles.

“We will remain in regular dialogue with councils and the Scottish Government.”

On Monday the SSPO joined other food producing organisations in urging businesses to reduce staffing to the bare essentials required to secure the food supply.

They also called on the Scottish Government to provide greater clarity to Scotland’s 32 local authorities on who they should define as key workers, to support the supply of food across the country.

According to the group, it is being left to 32 local authorities to make a case by case decision on individual businesses and groups of workers.

Shetland Islands Council was contacted for comment and it is understood that there are ongoing discussions within the council to define who will be regarded as key workers.

You can read all of today’s local coronavirus news on our live feed below:

Coronavirus latest – Islands prepare for life under ‘lockdown’ as people told to stay home