Covid-19 update for AERA Committee - 04/03/2021

Food & Farming Group Input

College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE)

CAFRE’s Education programmes continue to use remote delivery, in line with the Covid-19 restrictions announced by the NI Executive on 5 January 2021. CAFRE are liaising with the associated awarding organisations to implement the mitigations put in place to enable students to complete their qualifications during the 2020/21 academic year.

The majority of the Knowledge Transfer and Innovation programmes, including the Business Development Groups Scheme, Farm Family Key Skills Scheme and Technology Demonstration Farms Scheme training events continue to be delivered online to comply with the current Public Health Agency (PHA) advice and Government guidance. Data collection for financial and carbon footprint benchmarking is also continuing online.  

During this time, CAFRE’s Advisers and Technologists continue to be available to provide essential business and environmental advisory support to assist farmers, growers and food manufacturing businesses with advice to help maintain the agri-food supply chain and ensure the health and welfare of livestock.

The new top-up Honours Degree in Horticulture was successfully validated by the Ulster University in January 2021, with the first student enrolments projected for September 2021.  

Following the success of the Autumn Virtual Open Days events another series of Spring Virtual Open Days will be held during W/C 22 March 2021, using Facebook Live for prospective students interested in CAFRE’s education programmes.

Full-time HE students at CAFRE will qualify for the DfE £500 COVID Disruption Payment Scheme.  Payments will be made by CAFRE on behalf of DfE.

Update on Sector Support Schemes

The Agricultural Commodities (Coronavirus, Income Support) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020, has made payments of approx. £19.2m to almost 11,300 farm businesses in the dairy, beef, sheep and potato sectors. Work is ongoing to assess and process remaining claims from about 12 growers in the potato and Ornamental Horticulture sectors.

Minister Poots met with representatives of the pig production sector and has announced a financial support package worth £2.2m for pig producers that were specifically affected by the temporary closure of Cranswick Country Foods, Ballymena.

Minister Poots met with representatives of the broiler breeder sector and Minister Lyons has announced a financial support package worth up to £2m for those poultry producers that were specifically affected by the downturn in the market for hatching eggs.

New Legislation will be required to enable the Department to make payments to both pig and poultry farmers. DAERA plan to bring this to the Assemble in the coming weeks to enable the schemes to open and for farmers to receive their payments.

Stakeholder engagement

On 15th February Minister Lyons met with representatives of Ulster Wool, British Wool, UFU and the National Sheep Association for an update on the impact that COVID-19 has had on the global wool market and the consequences for local sheep farmers and Ulster Wool. Representatives of British Wool presented detailed figures on the financial impact that COVID-19 has had for the 2019 and 2020 crop of wool. Minister Lyons indicated that he was willing to review the matter further but asked that the figures be presented to DAERA in writing. This information has now been received and is being considered.

Update on Essential Finance or Budget information

Direct Payments for 2020

Payments began to issue on Friday 16 October 2020 with 94% of payments totalling £265.7million going out on the first day. By the end of the first week of payments this had increased to 97% and £275.5 million. For the past number of years Northern Ireland has had the best payment performance in the United Kingdom.  By making full payments in October we continue to be ahead of every other part of the UK and also ahead of all EU Member States. DAERA staff are working hard to verify the remaining claims and issue payments as quickly as possible. At 16 February 2021, 99.54% of farm businesses payments had been released to a value of £294.2m which includes reimbursement of financial discipline.

Environmental Farming Scheme

All EFS Wider and all Higher offers agreement have been issued to eligible Tranche 4 applicants.  142 Higher and 324 Wider agreement offers have been accepted.. Due to uncertainties created by the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, all those who accept agreements will have until the end of 2021 to complete their commitments.

It is planned to commence payment of all EFS Higher and Wider 2020 claims in April 2021.  All administrative and on the spot checks must be carried out before any payments can issue, these are ongoing at present  The extension of the time available to Tranche 3 applicants to complete their commitments from 1st June 2020 to 31st December 2020 has meant that checks of these claims could only commence in January 2021.

At present, subject to DoF approval, it is intended to open a fifth intake Tranche for EFS Higher in March.

The Department is bringing forward legislation to ensure that it is notified if SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is detected in animals. The Committee considered its proposal on 18 February.

This is a purely precautionary measure which will ensure that the disease can be monitored in animals here and any early warning signs of possible outbreaks can be identified.

It will enable the Department to notify the Public Health Agency, provide biosecurity advice and take any necessary control measures (e.g. to isolate infected animals and restrict their movements) where appropriate.

Similar action is being taken in other jurisdictions of the UK and SARS-Cov-2 is already reportable in the Republic of Ireland.

Veterinary Service & Animal Health Group

The Department is bringing forward legislation to ensure that it is notified if SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is detected in animals. The Committee considered the relevant proposal at its meeting on 18 February.

This is a purely precautionary measure which will ensure that the disease can be monitored in animals here and any early warning signs of possible outbreaks can be identified.

It will enable the Department to notify the Public Health Agency, provide biosecurity advice and take any necessary control measures (e.g. to isolate infected animals and restrict their movements) where appropriate.

Similar action is being taken in other jurisdictions of the UK and SARS-Cov-2 is already reportable in the Republic of Ireland.

Environment, Marine & Fisheries Group


Sea Fishing Sector

On 3 April 2020 the Minister announced a scheme of financial support for the sea fish catching sector. A total of 172 Letters of Offer and claim forms were issued and, at the close of the Scheme, 171 payments have been made to vessel owners totalling £1.32m. 

On 5 October 2020, the Minister announced further schemes of support for the sea-fish catching sector as a result of continuing depressed markets and prices for landings as a result of Covid-19. The first element, involving the temporary cessation of fishing activity by trawlers and dredgers, was supported through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, and had a total project cost of up to £1.3m and involving around 70 fishing vessels.

Payments have now been made to all 66 vessels that participated in the temporary cessation scheme, with payments totaling £1.125m made to vessel owners.

A scheme tailored to the needs of the potting fleet (generally smaller vessels that fish for crab and lobster) was also launched during November 2020 to offer fixed cost support to vessel owners, who will be permitted to continue to fish under the scheme. It is anticipated that up to 57 vessels will receive financial assistance with the scheme projected to cost £285k. Letters of invitation to apply for financial assistance issued to 85 vessel owners on 10 November 2020 and 57 applications have been received. Letters of offer will issue to successful vessel owners when the necessary legislation has been laid in the Assembly in the next few weeks.

DAERA continues to liaise with the sector to monitor the impacts of the current lockdown restrictions on the fleet to determine what, if any, further assistance may be required.

Aquaculture Sector

A Post Project Evaluation is underway for the previous Aquaculture Support Scheme. 

The Aquaculture sector has advised it continues to experience impacts as a result of Covid 19 and has asked for reconsideration of a further scheme. Data has now been collated which is currently being analysed to assess whether there is a need for a further scheme.  The Minister will be advised of the results and options in due course.

Lough Neagh Fishery

Fishing on Lough Neagh has resumed after the Christmas break with the focus on species such as roach and perch. The Pollen fishery does not start until the 1st February and the Eel fishery does not get underway until the 1st of May.

A potential financial support scheme has been developed to alleviate the loss of income for Lough Neagh’s commercial fishermen due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  The proposed scheme would be funded under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and the Minister is currently considering the details of the scheme.

Inland Fisheries

The NI Direct website link below provides advice to anglers regarding the current Covid-19 restrictions, which will be in place to 5 March 2021 (with a review on 18 February), and the opening status of the DAERA Public Angling Estate (PAE).The PAE waters continue to remain open to allow outdoor exercise – this includes angling.

Update on Essential Legislation

Nothing new to report.

Update on Essential Finance or Budget Information

Nothing new to report.

Northern Ireland Environment Agency


Waste Management Collection, Storage and Processing

As of the 18 February 2021, there are 95 (of the 96) Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) open across Northern Ireland. While Killen Recycling Centre (Derry City & Strabane District Council) remains closed, temporary waste disposal facilities are in place at Spamount Playing Fields, Castlederg (twice weekly) to assist people in the area to dispose of additional waste. 

Reports of assault at a site in Derry prompted a renewed focus on messaging around waste services and Covid-19. Key messages disseminated through DAERA and local council social media platforms included;

  1. Continuing with good bin hygiene/Respect & Protect
  2. Disposing of PPE correctly
  3. How to dispose of infectious waste
  4. Check for COVID rules before visiting your local Household Waste Recycling Centre
  5. Keep Recycling

Maintaining Drinking Water Quality

Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) and Water Regulation in NIEA continue to work closely with NI Water to monitor and assess how the analytical services have been impacted by the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and the current restrictions in place. The NI Water Analytical Services Rollback Plan for both drinking water (back to 90% of the previous monitoring levels) and waste water (back to 100%), remains under constant consideration and NI Water may be required to implement their Contingency Plan again if the impact escalates. If required, NI Water will request a sampling reduction from DWI and NIEA. NIEA have agreed to extend the Wastewater Sampling Regulatory Position Statement until March 2021 and this can be used by NI Water if required.

The private water supply monitoring schedule for 2021 is in operation and being continually reviewed by DWI to ensure as many premises as possible can be accessed during each scheduled monitoring round to ensure continued public health protection.

Compliance monitoring of Water Order industrial consents to discharge has resumed at a third of sample stations, using a risk based approach.  The focus is on those sites with potential to impact drinking water abstractions, and also bathing or shellfish waters and those designated for conservation value. With additional laboratory capacity becoming available, this will increase to 50% in February. Surveillance and reporting continues at sites which are not currently sampled.

Virus in Waste Water

DAERA have been engaged with DEFRA and other UK regulators on a UK wide programme on Virus Testing in Wastewater. The Queens University Belfast (QUB) and University College Dublin (UCD) collaborative project, which DAERA is co-funding, commenced on the 1st November 2020 and includes the establishment of an integrated system for all-island wastewater surveillance and reporting, initially sampling 2 sites in NI. The project has established capacity in Northern Ireland to allow future scale-up for a regional wide surveillance programme. Grab sampling commenced on 4th December with automated sampling in place on 11th January at Dunmurry and Ballynacor (Craigavon) WWTW. Lab analysis commenced on the 26th January and we are awaiting the first set of results from QUB. Funding for this sampling programme ends in March 2021.

NIEA continue to work on extending the virus surveillance research beyond March 2021 which will include 6 additional sites across NI in the short term whilst a potential scale up in sampling is developed. NI Water and NIEA have been involved in technical discussions with QUB ensuring logistics are in place to allow for the collection of samples at the Wastewater Treatment Works.

An interdepartmental approach to COVID-19 in wastewater is being developed. Both PHA and DoH expressed interest in the benefits wastewater surveillance could offer in both dealing with the current COVID pandemic, and in informing future public health decisions.   

QUB have submitted a Business case to put in place a significant scale up (60 sites) surveillance with estimated costs of £3million to start up and establish. Additional costs are to be worked up with NI Water/ DfI in relation to sample collection and transportation. Partnerships with AFBI and other providers are also being scoped to support the delivery of a scale up programme.

It was agreed that an interdepartmental (DoH, DAERA and DfI) business case (accordance with Treasury Green Book) for Covid Funding will be developed for submission to DoF. A number of side discussions will be required to facilitate the drafting of this submission and achieve sign off within each Department. Further discussions are required to put in place appropriate governance structures to manage and oversee the delivery of the surveillance.

Future Viability of Environmental NGOs

EMFG and NIEA Directors continue to hold meetings with representatives of the sector on a regular basis to discuss current issues and recovery.

The finances of the National Trust have been impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic and they were awarded c£230,000 from the Environment Fund (EF) In-Year Fund at the end of December 2020 to help them maintain conservation works to key designated sites and outdoor recreation facilities in 2020/21. A further EF In-Year Fund Letter of Offer is being prepared for 2021/22 for a grant award of c£400,000.

Letters of Offer for 2021/22 for the Multi-year Strategic Strand of the Environment Fund commenced issuing on 8 January 2021. A total of 23 offers will issue to the value of approximately £2.13 million.

A further 2 EF In-Year Fund applications are currently being assessed which could result in additional awards totalling just over £1 million for 2020/21.

Country Parks and Nature Reserves

Nothing new to report.

Update on Essential Legislation: Environment Bill

Report Stage opened on 26 January but the UK Government successfully sought agreement from the House of Commons to a carry-over motion, meaning that the Bill will remain paused until the next Parliamentary session commences, probably in May 2021.

The Bill is not now expected to receive Royal Assent until autumn 2021 and the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will not be fully operational in England until late 2021. It is, of course, for the Assembly to make the final decision on whether the OEP should operate in Northern Ireland.

As a result of the Parliamentary delay, DEFRA has established an Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat (IEGS) to manage complaints between 1 January 2021 and the date that the OEP becomes operational. The IEGS has no enforcement powers but will manage complaints administratively. Northern Ireland is integrated into the IEGS as far as it is practicable to do so.

The UK Government has tabled a number of amendments to the Environment Bill in respect of the enforcement functions of the OEP. Parallel amendments for NI were passed at Report Stage. A further Legislative Consent Memorandum is being prepared and will be laid at the Assembly in due course. DAERA officials will forward a draft Memorandum to the Committee at the earliest opportunity and provide briefing as required.

Update on Essential Finance or Budget Information

In addition to the Executive’s previous allocation of £3.8m to help cover the additional waste costs incurred by Councils for the period March to end June 2020, a further bid for £11.4m for the period July through to March 2021 was approved in September 2020. To date 70% advance payments totalling £2.66m from the first tranche of funding have been made to councils. All claims for Quarter 1, totalling £3.8m, have now been received and are currently being verified. Payment should be made to Councils in the next few weeks. 

Rural Affairs, Forest Service & Estate Transformation Group

Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI) Programme

Rural Business Development Grant Scheme

633 Letters of Offer have been issued to rural businesses to the value of £2m.  The Scheme will provides capital grant assistance (up to a maximum of £4,999) to rural micro businesses to bring about improvements towards sustainability and help businesses recover from Covid-19. 

Capital items must be purchased by the 26 February 2021.   

Covid-19 Revitalisation Programme

£2.3m in total (£1m to Tranche 1 and £1.3m to Tranche 2) has been provided through the TRPSI programme to support DfC’s Covid-19 Revitalisation Programme. 

Following submission of updated Revitalisation Actions Plans, Tranche 2 Letters of Offer issued to Councils in late October.  Tranche 2, £12.7m (£1.3m DAERA, £6.4m DfC and £5m DfI) will address medium term revitalisation needs identified by Councils. An Inter-departmental Programme Board involving DAERA, DfC and DfI has been established and has met four times to date.

Rural Micro Capital Grant Scheme

The 2020 Rural Micro Capital Grant Scheme (RMCGS) closed for applications on 2 October.  711 applications were received, with 653 Letters of Offer issued offering £851k grant. The projects must be completed by 31 March 2021. These grants will support the Community and Voluntary sector in their work to recover and reset following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Warm, Well and Connected – Winter Wellbeing Interventions Project

This Scheme, in partnership with DfC is helping to will address issues such as loneliness, isolation, mental health issues including anxiety and financial hardship relating to household fuel bills by focusing on community development approaches and rolling out preventative activities to address material and emotional wellbeing issues. Over 21,000 rural people have benefitted to date from initiatives organised by the Rural Support Networks who are a key delivery partner.

Rural Support Charity

Rural Support provides a listening ear and signposting service to farmers and farm families and provides Helpline / Volunteer & Outreach support to rural clients.  Rural Support also provides presentations and information sessions to help reduce stress and promote positive mental health.  They also provide on-farm business mentoring to farmers / family members and are currently delivering their Winter programme of events – ‘For Farmers by Farmers’ to help farm families deal with increasing internal and external pressures which includes Covid-19 related issues. 

Farm Families Health Check Programme (FFHCP) – Covid-19 Response

DAERA, PHA and NH&SCT staff continue to closely monitor the COVID-19 situation. FFHCP staff have once again had to suspend checks due to the impact of the latest Covid restrictions. They are however engaged in the ongoing vaccination programme. 

Spring Social Prescribing

Covid 19 continues to significantly impact the community sector involved in delivering the SPRING project. The referral of clients to Social Prescribing has recommenced and, in light of the impact of the ongoing Covid pandemic on individual’s physical and emotional health, the project will be very beneficial to those availing of the services it provides.  

Assisted Rural Travel Scheme response to Covid 19

Throughout the pandemic, officials have worked closely with colleagues in DfI to support the Rural Community Transport Partnerships (RCTP’s) to provide flexibility to maintain and transition/sustain their operations in support of rural communities and rural dwellers. Over 10,500 food parcels were delivered to households and 8,195 parcels delivered to hubs for delivery to households. Also, from 11,825 telephone calls made to members of the Partnerships, 6,879 individuals have been signposted to services including food parcel delivery and prescription collection.

Covid 19 Vaccination Programme

To fully support the vaccination programme, the DAERA and DfI Ministers officials have agreed that the RCTPs can provide transport upon request to vaccination centres, subject to capacity, for both members and non-members. This will only be provided when the proposed user has no other readily available transport.

Rural Tourism Pilot Scheme

Website Development Programme

The Programme, delivered by Tourism NI and part funded by DAERA, is aimed at tourism experience providers across Northern Ireland to either create a new, or enhance an existing, website improving their online presence allowing them to engage with both domestic and international markets and produce immersive content to attract customers to visit Northern Ireland.

Interest in the Programme has been high resulting in 72 Letters of Offer being issued, of which approximately 50% are to rural tourism businesses, worth a total of £1m.  Work has begun to create or update new or existing websites with all WDP interventions to complete by 31st March 2021.

Rural Tourism Collaborative Experience Programme

The Programme, delivered by Councils, is aimed at rural tourism businesses across Northern Ireland, bringing together rural businesses and other potential partners to co-develop a combined experience, aligned with Tourism NI’s “Embrace a Giant Spirit”, offering the visitor an end to end product, that meets their needs, increases dwell time in the area thereby driving economic growth.

Ten Letters of Offer issued to Councils on 18th December 2020 worth £465,250.  Projects are due to complete by 31st March 2022.

Central Services & Contingency Planning

Nothing new to report.

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