Covid-19 Update for AERA Committee – 14/01/2021

Food & Farming Group Input

College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE)

CAFRE’s Education programmes are continuing using a blended approach to delivery, with students attending the campuses for delivery of the essential practical skills elements of the programmes, combined with remote learning for lectures, using digital learning technologies.

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 Honours Degree in Sustainable Agriculture, with pathways in Land Management and Agri-business was successfully validated by the Ulster University and marketing of the programmes is ongoing with the first student enrolments projected for September 2021.  

Update on Sector Support Schemes

The Agricultural Commodities (Coronavirus, Income Support) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020, has made payments of approx. £18.5m to 11,200 farm businesses in the dairy, beef, sheep and potato sectors. Work is ongoing to assess and process remaining claims from about 40 growers in the potato and Ornamental Horticulture sectors.

Minister has met with representatives of the pig production sector and has agreed in principle to offer some financial support to pig producers that were specifically affected by the temporary closure of Cranswick Country Foods, Ballymena.

Minister has met with representatives of the broiler breeder sector and has agreed in principle to offer some financial support to 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. Given other DAERA priorities in the coming weeks it will be early 2021 before this can be done and farmers receive their payments.

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 23 December, 99.4% of farm businesses payments had been released to a value of £293.3m which includes reimbursement of financial discipline.

Environmental Farming Scheme

Agreements have been issued to over 70% of eligible Tranche 4 applications.  The remaining agreements will issue in mid-January.  Applicants must accept these agreements online through DAERA Online Services. 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.

Current agreement holders are being reminded via the Farm Advisory Service Newsletter and individual letters to manage their claims appropriately as the end of the calendar year approaches and to complete compulsory online training and other compliance requirements.  Where training or other compulsory elements are not completed, payment may be refused or agreements terminated.

It is planned to commence payment of all EFS Higher and Wider 2020 claims in early April 2021.  All administrative and on the spot checks must be carried out before any payments can issue.  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 can only commence in January 2021.

Veterinary Service & Animal Health Group

Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) programme

From 1 December 2020, restrictions prohibiting moves to livestock markets and other herds arising from an overdue bTB test returned to being applied seven days after a test becomes overdue rather than after the extended 35 day grace period which was introduced in April 2020.

In addition, from 5 January 2021, rules preventing herds with overdue tests from moving cattle into the herd or to slaughterhouses will have been reinstated.  These restrictions only apply when a herd test is 37 days overdue.

Other Covid related TB measures introduced in the spring remain in place.  These include:

  • Calves under 180 days old can be exempted from herd tests, where testing these younger animals cannot be carried out safely and in line with current PHA guidance on social distancing measures. 
  • Keepers will not be referred to the paying agency for overdue bTB tests if they and/or their PVP advise DAERA that the test could not be completed by the due date for reasons associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Animal By-Products

All animal by-product inspections and on farm feed sampling for processed animal protein have recommenced and are being delivered in line with the relevant COVID-19 advice and guidance.

Current position

VSAHG officials are engaged with industry to assist development of their contingency plans in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak within slaughterhouses.

General queries

VSAHG has been providing advice in response to a number queries in relation to how the current Covid restrictions introduced on 26 December affect animal businesses and riding schools. Officials have also updated the Departmental website to provide clarity needed by stakeholders on the position.

Veterinary Public Health Programme

Temporary and partial cessation of activities at Foyle Meats, Campsie.

On 4th December, Foyle Meats Campsie, a large beef slaughter and processing plant in Lisahally voluntarily initiated a temporary and partial cessation of activities. This action was taken following advice from the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the Health & Safety Executive Agency Northern Ireland (HSENI) in response to an increasing incidence of COVID-19 within the workforce. In agreement with PHA & HSENI officials, operations recommenced on 11th November.

As there is currently sufficient additional beef processing capacity across the NI processing sector, no backlogs of slaughter-ready cattle, nor food supply issues were encountered during the temporary cessation.

Environment, Marine & Fisheries Group and Northern Ireland Environment Agency

Environment update

Waste Management Collection, Storage and Processing

As of the 4 January 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.   

Maintaining Drinking Water Quality

Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) and Water Regulation in NIEA have been working 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 management measures are responding well to the rising pressures as a small number of positive cases among staff has required their Contingency Plan to be re-activated, however to date no impact has been reported on monitoring capacity within the laboratories for drinking water or waste water.

However, whilst regulatory monitoring had returned under their Rollback Plan for both drinking water (back to 90% of the previous monitoring levels) and waste water (back to 100%), 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.  NIEA have agreed to extend the Wastewater Sampling Regulatory Position Statement until January 2021 and this can be used by NI Water if required.

DWI continues to review the monitoring programme for private water supply sites in consultation with councils to ensure as many sites as possible are sampled for continued public health protection taking into consideration changing restrictions. To increase council resilience, DWI has delivered five training sessions in drinking water sampling procedures for council officers (approx. 85 staff).

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. Queens University Belfast (QUB) and University College Dublin (UCD) have submitted a joint R&D application to the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) COVID-19 Rapid Response programme, which DAERA is co-funding. Announcements relating to the surveillance were published by SFI on 14 December 2021.

The QUB-UCD collaborative project commenced on the 1st November 2020 and includes the establishment of an integrated system for all-island SARS-CoV-2 wastewater surveillance and reporting (NI budget £194,942). In brief the QUB-UCD project will provide the analysis of sampling data and a GIS platform to plot all Covid related data spatially. This GIS platform with wastewater surveillance data will be shared with the Public Health Agency (PHA) to inform the response to the prevalence of the virus in the community.

Furthermore, NIEA are currently scoping the extension of this virus surveillance research to include an additional sites across) NI over a 12 month monitoring programme.  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.

It is timely that further consideration is given to how this Covid in wastewater surveillance programme will tie in with the overall NI effort to tackle the virus.  An interdepartmental approach to Covid in wastewater is being considered with a meeting between DAERA, DoH and PHA scheduled during week commencing 4 January 2021.

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 Pandemic and they were recently awarded c£230,000 from the Environment Fund to help them maintain conservation works to key designated sites and outdoor recreation facilities.

Country Parks and Nature Reserves

All facilities are open except for those that are restricted by The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 (as amended). Indoor visitor attractions and museums in Country Parks have been closed (except to facilitate access to toilet facilities in Crawfordsburn Country Park). 

Cafes have been closed to consumption on premises, however the Department has been facilitating concession holders to operate take-away services if they wish to do so. 

Update on Essential Legislation: Environment Bill

Westminster Committee Stage resumed on 3 November 2020 and concluded on 26 November 2020. Report Stage and Third Reading are expected to be scheduled in mid-January, with the Bill proceeding to the House of Lords shortly thereafter.

The Bill is not now expected to receive Royal Assent until spring 2021 at the earliest and the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will not be fully operational in England until July 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 is establishing an Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat (IEGS) to manage complaints between 1 January 2021 and the date that the OEP becomes operational. The IEGS will have no enforcement powers but will manage complaints administratively. Northern Ireland will be integrated into the IEGS as far as it is practicable to do so. DAERA staff will engage in training with Defra colleagues during December 2020.

The UK Government has tabled a number of amendments to the Environment Bill in respect of the enforcement functions of the OEP. The DAERA Minister has indicated that he wishes to maintain parity with these amendments to ensure consistency of approach across both jurisdictions. These parallel amendments, some of which will require legislative consent, will be considered by MPs at Report Stage. A Legislative Consent Memorandum will be drafted and laid if the amendments are accepted, with a subsequent debate in the Assembly. The Committee will be briefed in due course.

Update on Essential Finance or Budget Information

Nothing new to report.

Environment, Marine & Fisheries Group

Fisheries update

Sea Fishing Sector

On 3 April 2020 the Minister announced that the Department would proceed with 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 a further scheme 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. This element of the scheme, supported through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, has a total project cost estimated at up to £1.3m and will involve around 70 fishing vessels.

Payments have now been made to all 36 vessels that participated in the first period of temporary cessation of fishing activities with the total grant paid of £662k. Payments to the remaining 23 fishing vessels will be made during January 2021 after the later period of temporary cessation ends on 31 December 2020.

A scheme tailored to the needs of the potting fleet (generally smaller vessels that fish for crab and lobster) was also launched during November 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 60 vessels will receive financial assistance with the scheme projected to cost £390k. Letters of invitation to apply for financial assistance issued to 85 vessel owners on 10 November 2020 and 55 applications have been received.

Aquaculture Sector

The Aquaculture Support Scheme has been delivered under established governance arrangements for the European and Maritime Fisheries Fund programme. Payments totalling £126,373 were made to 15 applicants. A PPE is underway. 

The Aquaculture sector has advised it continues to experience impacts as a result of Covid 19 and asked for reconsideration of a further scheme. An assessment of impacts and needs is underway.

Lough Neagh Fishery

Both the brown eel fishery and the silver eel fishery are now closed with good catches reported towards the end of last year. The market remained challenged throughout the season with some EU member states applying further restrictions. Due to Covid issues with staff, the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Cooperative has stopped taking in scale fish to process.

A 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 scheme will be funded under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and the Minister is currently considering the details of the scheme.

Update on Essential Legislation

Necessary amendments to aquaculture and aquatic animal health regulations were taken forward to ensure operability post transition and to implement the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. Amendments to aquatic animal health legislation were taken forward in a Statutory Rule (SR), namely The Animals (Health, Identification, Trade and Veterinary Medicines) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020.  This SR was considered by the Committee  on 17 December.  The Committee was content with the merits of the policy and that it move to the next legislative stage. The Regulations were made on 23 December and came into operation on 1 January 2021.

Amendments to domestic legislation relating to the use of alien and locally absent species in aquaculture were also brought forward.  Following approval by the Assembly on 14 December, SR 2020 No. 333, The Alien and Locally Absent Species (Aquaculture) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, was made on 16 December 2020. The Regulations came into operation on 1 January 2021.

Work to scope the implications for the sector of new EU Animal Health Law on transmissible animal diseases has commenced. This must be implemented in full in NI by 21 April 2021 under the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. This law covers kept (i.e. fish/shellfish farms) and wild aquatic animals, and animals which are not aquatic animals but which may transmit diseases affecting aquatic animals; and products of animal origin from aquatic animals.

Update on Essential Finance or Budget Information

As part of the Spending Review announced on 25th November, £3.055m has been provided to support the NI fishing industry during 2021/22. The funding is in line with European Maritime and Fisheries Fund spend in Northern Ireland over the past 4 years and covers industry grants, control and enforcement, data collection and technical assistance.

Rural Affairs, Forestry Service & Estate Transformations Group

Rural Affairs Division

DAERA Direct Offices

CSB staff continue to work in the 12 DAERA Direct offices on essential services.  Customers continue to have access to the office post box, telephony and on-line assistance. All staff must wear face coverings in communal areas when in DAERA buildings.

CSB have recruited 26 additional temporary AO staff to assist with Support Health Attestations which will be required following UK Exit and additional processing work.

Farm Families Health Check Programme (FFHCP) - COVID-19 Response

DAERA, PHA and NH&SCT staff continue to closely monitor the COVID-19 situation. Fully trained nursing staff are undertaking carefully managed visits to marts during the winter months. 

Spring Social Prescribing

With the onset of Covid 19, SPRING staff developed a new delivery model entitled ‘Connect Well Service’ where Social Prescribers contacted all clients remotely by telephone, text, social media platforms or through video link.  Covid 19 has significantly impacted the community sector involved in delivering the SPRING project.  To address this a SPRING ‘Transitioning’ document has been developed. DAERA are working closely with SPRING to implement the proposals it contains to safely recommence the project. 

Rural Business Development Grant Scheme

633 Letters of Offer have been issued to rural businesses to the value of £2.027m.  Work must be completed by the 26 February 2021 and three claims have been submitted to DAERA for reimbursement. 

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.  A total of 711 applications were received and those eligible have all received their Letters of Offer of grant aid. 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 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. 

Rural Tourism Pilot Scheme

Website Development Programme

The Programme is aimed at tourism experience providers across Northern Ireland to either create a new, or enhance an existing, website improving their online presence.  Interest in the Programme has been high resulting in 153 Expressions of Interest (EOI) being received (78 of these from rural businesses).  Fifty applications were submitted by the closing date of 25 September. Approximately 20 applications are expected from the EOI reserve list.  The moderation panel will consider these in December.

Rural Tourism Scheme

To date 15 projects have been approved, under the Scheme, to receive funding totalling £7.29m.  A further five potential applications are being developed.

Forest Service update

Covid 19 update

The current regulations do not restrict the opening of car parks, toilets, playparks and trails which continue to operate as normal at Forest Parks. 

Forest Service operated campsites and caravan parks closed in line with COVID-19 regulations which came into effect on 16 October 2020. 

Forest Service operated camping and caravanning site facilities at Tollymore and at ‘Touring in The Trees’ sites, which normally operate all year round, are currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions and will reopen when the Regulations permit.

Other sites which operate seasonally will remain closed for the off peak season, as from 31 October 2020, in line with normal operating practice.

Central Services & Contingency Planning

Nothing new to report

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