Boris Johnson has rejected a plea to introduce emergency work visas after a Conservative MP warned that “crops are rotting in the fields” of his constituency due to labour shortages.
Roger Gale, who represents Thanet, said producers in his local area have had to throw away vast quantities of produce because there are not enough people to pick it or transport it to market.
Businesses across the country have been hit hard by a shortage of workers since Britain left the EU’s single market and ended free movement at the start of the year.
Many sectors that were previously staffed by migrant workers from the European Union have struggled to recruit enough employees, with repercussions along the supply chain.
Addressing the prime minister Mr Gale said: “We’re at harvest time, and Mr Speaker, all is not safely gathered-in. In three weeks Thanet Earth in my constituency, one of the largest glass house companies in the country growing tomatoes has had to trash £320,000 worth of produce because of no pickers and no drivers.
“Because of a lack of labour force the crops are rotting in the fields and on our trees. Mr Speaker, will my Right Honourable friend, seek to introduce immediately, a Covid recovery visa, so that this year’s crops are not lost?”
Mr Johnson rejected the plea and said the existing arrangements were already sufficient to deal with the issue. He claimed the problem had been going on “for a long time” – in an apparent bid to absolve his own recent ending of free movement from blame.
“He’s absolutely right in what he says about the importance of buying British eating British,” the prime minister said, wearing a wheat sheaf badge at his suit breast pocket to mark “British Farming Day”.
“Our food is the best in the world, and he’s right also to address the problems in the supply chain that we’re currently seeing, but we are taking steps. And of course, this has been a problem for a long time, but what we have here we have is a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which we’ll use to ensure that British farms get the labour, that they need.”
Last week the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said that while most farms were “just about surviving” the current lack of drivers was unsustainable and urgent action was needed to prevent more serious problems with food deliveries.
Some UK farmers have been told to throw away milk because of a shortage of lorry drivers to collect it, while one dairy logistics firm warned of a “collapse of parts of the supply chain”.