Covid-19 update for AERA Committee - 15/04/2021

Food & Farming Group Input

College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE)

In March 2021, CAFRE commenced a phased return of students for face-to-face delivery of the essential practical elements of the education programmes, on a non-residential basis at the outset, with the majority of the students timetabled to return to College after Easter. The theory based elements of the Higher Education programmes will continue to be delivered online for the remainder of the academic year. CAFRE has revised its existing protocols, in line with the Public Health Agency (PHA) advice and Government guidance, to facilitate the return of a limited number of staff and students to the campuses and mitigate the risk of transmission of the virus.  

CAFRE are continuing to liaise with the associated awarding organisations to facilitate the completion of course assessments to allow the students to achieve 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 Knowledge Advisory Service continues to provide an extensive programme of online conferences and webinars to support the Agri-Food Industry and 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 £500 payment, under the Department for the Economy’s COVID Disruption Payment Scheme, has been processed for all full-time Higher Education students at CAFRE.

Update on Sector Support Schemes

The Agricultural Commodities (Coronavirus, Income Support) Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2020, has made payments of approx. £19.6m to almost 11,300 farm businesses in the dairy, beef, sheep, potato and Ornamental Horticulture sectors.

Support schemes for approx. 100 pig farmers affected by the temporary closure of Cranswick Country Foods, Ballymena, worth £2m and for approx. 100 poultry farmers producers affected by the downturn in the market for hatching eggs worth £2m, opened between 15 March and 24 March. Payments of over £2m have been issued.  .

Minister Poots recently announced a £1.2m Covid-19 support scheme for sheep producers impacted by the downturn in global prices for wool.

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 25 March 2021, 99.6% of farm businesses payments had been released to a value of £294.7m which includes reimbursement of financial discipline.

Environmental Farming Scheme

Payment of all EFS Higher and Wider 2020 claims will commence from the 1 April 2021, appearing in bank accounts around the 9/10 April.  Over 60% of claims will be paid on the 1 April with payments continuing into May/June as claims are checked and validated.

Approximately 80% of EFS participants will have their 2021 EFS claim data populated on the Single Application and Maps Service from 30 March, allowing them to submit a claim for the 2021 year.  The remaining participants will have their data uploaded on the 23 April.  DAERA will notify those whose data will not be available from the 30 March.  This is to ensure the data is as accurate and up to date as possible when it is populated.

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

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

On 24 February, the Department made legislation which makes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, notifiable when it is detected in animals. This ensures that the Department can take appropriate control measures if required to protect human health.

DAERA continues to liaise with the equine sector to monitor the impact of restrictions on it and respond to queries regarding relaxations of the covid restrictions.

Defra recently received communications from General Administration of Customs China (GACC), relating to a new requirement for formal listing of approved fishing vessels involved in the supply chain of fish and fishery products exported to China. In addition, GACC also now require assurance of appropriate COVID-19 measures in all establishments and fishing vessels supplying products to China. A recent exercise was conducted to identify any new vessels and establishments and details of one new establishment in Northern Ireland have been submitted to GACC. Of the total number submitted by the UK, approximately 20 % of these will be randomly selected to undergo virtual inspection to assess food hygiene and COVID 19 measures.

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 are be permitted to continue to fish under the scheme. It is anticipated that up to 55 vessels will receive financial assistance with the scheme projected to cost around £150k.  As of 26th March 2021, 39 payments of financial assistance totaling £116k have been made.

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

On 22 March 2021, the Minister announced a further aquaculture financial assistance scheme of up to £325k to support aquaculture businesses who markets continue to be impacted as a result of Covid-19. This scheme is similar to the previous scheme, funded through the EMFF, and providing a level of financial support of up to 50% of an undertaking’s income foregone as a result of the pandemic, within the qualifying period September to December 2020. Invite letters issued to eligible businesses on 23 March 2021.

Lough Neagh Fishery

Fishing on Lough Neagh resumed after the Christmas break with the focus on species such as roach and perch. The Pollen fishery started on 1st February and the Eel fishery gets underway on 1st May.

A proposed financial support scheme has been developed to alleviate the loss of income for Lough Neagh’s commercial fishermen due to the Covid-19 pandemic and DAERA officials are liaising with the Department of Finance to seek approval to proceed with the scheme.  The proposed scheme would be funded under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.

Inland Fisheries

The NI Direct website link below provides advice to anglers regarding the current Covid-19 restrictions and guidance. The Public Angling Estate (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.

Environment update

Waste Management Collection, Storage and Processing

Local councils continue to deliver waste collection and recycling services across Northern Ireland with no significant issues to report. Officials from the Department will continue to engage with local councils to monitor the situation. 

 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. NIEA have agreed to extend the Wastewater Sampling Regulatory Position Statement until June 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. As we move through the Pathway to Recovery and premises reopen, DWI are reissuing guidance for businesses with private water supplies to ensure that they take all necessary steps to ensure their drinking water supply is safe.

40% of compliance monitoring of Water Order industrial consents to discharge is in place, a risk based approach has been applied to select sample stations. 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.

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. Funding for this sampling programme ends in March 2021.

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

A two phased approach has been established: Phase 1 (April – June 2021) allowing for the continued development of the sampling and testing capabilities whilst maximising the population coverage with a small number of sites. Phase 2 (12 month programme from June 2021) will involve a significant scale up with the intention of sampling up to 60 sites across NI to deliver at least 80% population.

NIEA has in place a Service Level Agreement with QUB to take forward Phase 1 of the two phased approach.

DAERA continues to work with DoH officials on the development of the Covid Emergency Bid for Phase 2. QUB have submitted a Business case to put in place a significant scale up (60 sites) of surveillance with estimated costs of £3million to start up and establish. NI Water/ have indicated an estimated £1million for 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

Consideration is being given to the development of a 2021/22 Green Recovery Challenge Fund which would be delivered through the Environment Fund.

Country Parks and Nature Reserves

  • Nothing new to report.

Outdoor Recreation – Environmental Behaviours

Northern Ireland’s outdoor areas and scenic spots have seen a huge increase in visitor numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Whilst this interest in the outdoors is extremely positive for society, it has generated significant issues that are disrupting natural beauty spots, such as littering, dog waste, irresponsible car parking, livestock worrying, disturbance to wildlife, overcrowding and damage which can be caused by wild camping and wildfires.

DAERA’s Environment Fund is providing grant aid to Outdoor Recreation NI to develop and coordinate delivery of a ‘Right Side of Out Side’ campaign in collaboration with a wider group of organisations including UFU, to generate awareness of these concerns and instil more positive behaviours.

Update on Essential Legislation: Environment Bill

The Environment Bill remains paused until after the next Parliamentary session commences, which is currently scheduled for 11 May 2021.

The Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent in autumn 2021 and commencement of almost all of the provisions relating to devolved matters is subject to Assembly approval.

DEFRA established an Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat (IEGS) to manage complaints to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) on 1 January 2021 and this will transition into an Interim OEP in July, with the additional remit of preparing for operational readiness. 

A further Legislative Consent Memorandum is being prepared in respect of amendments relating to OEP guidance and Forest Risk Commodities 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

A total of £15.2m has been made available to Councils to help cover the additional waste costs incurred by them as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020/21. All claims for the first two quarters have been processed with a total of £6.23m having been paid out to the 11 councils. Letters of offer totalling £8.97m have been issued for the third and fourth quarters with 70% advance payments totalling £6.27m having been made. Balance payments will be made on receipt and verification of claims from individual councils.

Rural Affairs, Forestry Service & Estate Transformations Group

Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI) Programme

Rural Business Development Grant Scheme

633 Letters of Offer issued to rural businesses to the value of £2m.  The Scheme has provided 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. Businesses are currently finalising their investments with all expenditure to be incurred by 31 March 2021 and Rural Affairs Division are processing claims.

Rural Micro Capital Grant Scheme

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

Warm, Well and Connected – Winter Wellbeing Interventions Project

This Scheme, in partnership with DfC is helping to 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 62,000 rural people have benefitted to date from initiatives facilitated 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 have plans in place to launch a support programme for women in agriculture in 2022.  Rural Support’s new Strategy focuses on providing farming families with practical support and empowering them to work together as a team to build a stronger farm businesses. 

Assisted Rural Travel Scheme response to Covid 19

Rural Community Transport Partnerships continue to 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.

Forest Park Enhancement And Community Trail Development Scheme - This initiative in conjunction with Councils has resulted in 17 Forest Park and Community Trails significantly developed. These developments have encouraged very large numbers of people, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis to utilize and enjoy the natural outdoors. Six of these projects will be completed in the 20/21 financial year while a call to Councils for further Expressions of Interest in the Scheme in 2021/22 resulted in 15 applications. These are currently being assessed  

Central Services & Contingency Planning

DAERA officials continue to meet regularly with stakeholders to consider Covid impacts and mitigations. Information, including details about Covid Lateral Flow Testing has been provided to stakeholders and meetings facilitated with Department of Health officials on the matter.

DAERA is represented on the Executive Office led Covid Cross Departmental Working Group and continues to bring forward issues and impacts relating to the agri-food, environment and rural sectors.

Update on Essential Finance or Budget information

Budget 2021-22

As part of the Final Budget process DAERA submitted COVID bids of £24.3m as set out in the table below:

COVID Bids Description £m
Market Support for Agri-Food Sector 5.0
Monitoring Wastewater for COVID-19 2.8
Green Recovery 2.0
Additional Waste Costs for Councils 2.0
Digital Services 1.5
Market Support for Agri-Food Sector - MARKER BID 10.0
AFBI COVID-19 Testing Costs - MARKER BID 1.0
Total 24.3

As at 26 March 2021 the Executive had not yet agreed the Final Budget for 2021-22.

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