Updated statement from NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker regarding the continuing Covid-19 outbreak

12th May 2020

As Britain's Covid-19 lockdown reaches its 7th week we are now starting to approach some forms of relaxation in England and diverging positions between England and devolved nations.  Phil Stocker, Chief Executive of the NSA, explores the situation in relation to our sheep industry and considers how any imminent changes might impact. 

“With Britain entering our 7th week of severe lockdown measures we are now at an inevitable point where decisions over the balance between protecting human health and the NHS, and getting the economy back into gear, are coming into play.  The Govt has just issued a roadmap for recovery, available here, setting out the criteria that will need to be met and the potential for ‘smarter controls’ than simple lockdown, taking into account levels of risk, new understanding of the virus, and the wide range of social objectives that are to be met.  The fact that we have differing positions in devolved nations is on one hand unhelpful and confusing, but on the other it is likely to prepare us more for what we will see in the future with high risk situations being dealt with while allowing some level of normality to continue where it can.  The roadmap is clear that the priority is peoples health, followed closely by rebuilding the economy – and as time passes we will see that the two are interdependent."

"As far as the sheep industry is concerned we saw an immediate impact some 7 weeks ago when the lockdown resulted in the closure of the tourism, restaurant, and hospitality sector.  The effect this had on the market was a sharp reminder of the importance of this sector to carcass balance.  It wasn’t just here in Britain that this impacted on us and similar controls in the EU, along with Easter and pressure in France for supermarkets there to stock French lamb meant that our export trade was hit hard – thankfully for a relatively short period and over the following weeks it clawed its way back to more normal levels.  For the last month we have been in a far better place than we might have hoped.  Retail sales of lamb, as consumers switched from eating out to buying ingredients and eating in, have seen some growth and High St butchers and farm shops in particular have been reporting a substantial increase in turnover and demand.  But we cannot afford to be complacent and this has all happened at probably the most convenient time for our industry, when most sheep farmers have been busy lambing and a minority actually selling lambs.  What we must do now is stay tuned to the number of new season lambs that will grow over the next month and more, and to plan for what can be done to ensure that market demand runs ahead of supply.  This is why NSA have been in close contact with the levy bodies to talk about promotional plans for the months ahead – and not wait for a crisis to occur before we wonder what can be done.  It's why the NSA has also been trying to support the work of DIT in working to open up exports of lamb and sheep genetics to the US, even though this wont be a solution to the challenges of today, and it's also why we have been raising the issue of UK/EU trade discussions and the spectre of no free trade deal being reached by June.  It is unlikely that the catering and hospitality trade will be back to normal for a good while yet so we need to plan for other market areas to cater for that volume and cut type."

"Away from the sheep meat market, we are fortunate in the work done by LAA and the market companies to keep live sales functioning while adhering to social distancing requirements.  This has undoubtedly helped keep prices up, and was done to such a standard that it gave confidence for all administrations to permit live breeding animal sales to run under the same social distancing requirements.   We will have to watch and see whether our bigger breeding sales can operate in the same way as normal – probably unlikely but, like farmers, auctioneers can be an imaginative bunch when they choose to be and will find a way for stock to be traded."

"The shearing season is now underway and two months ago there were big concerns over a shortage of shearers from NZ and elsewhere.  We are not through the woods yet but with NSA, British Wool, and NAAC, working closely together with the farming unions we have had a big push to try to get the shearing gangs populated with British shearers (which will save a fortune on needing to go to the gym), and the NSA is building on this by connecting local shearers and sheep keepers together via our web site.   The new roadmap for recovery clearly sets out the ability for sheep contractors to do their work, shearing or otherwise, and working out in the fresh air is considered to be a lower risk for transmission as long as personal biosecurity measures are followed."

"So, with luck we can plan for our markets and for getting our work done, but what about that other important aspect of life – the NSA sheep events and summer shows? Our national event at Malvern is now scheduled for October 19th and while this cant be certain we will keep planning for it to go ahead.  Its likelihood is more positive than a week ago but we just need to watch this space for a month or so yet before hopefully things become clearer. NSA Scottish region is still yet to announce the cancellation of Scotsheep 2020 in July but this is as much about trying to be clear about future plans.   Will the roadmap for recovery mean that we see large gatherings this autumn? We probably need more time before anyone can answer that and it will be a matter of watching those key roadmap indicators – capability within the NHS; a sustained fall in daily death rates from Covid-19; falling levels of infections; testing status and PPE; and doing whatever is needed to avoid a second peak of infections."

"We, above many others, should understand the principles of reasonable risk assessment, biosecurity and quarantine, disease and viral infections, and the use of key performance indicators to assess whether we are doing things right or wrong."

"From everyone at the NSA I'd urge you to stay safe and stay well.”