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Stopping farm workers crossing Irish border pointless, says contractor

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Spillover: Dr Gabriel Scally

Spillover: Dr Gabriel Scally

Spillover: Dr Gabriel Scally

A call for seasonal farm labourers in Northern Ireland not to travel to the Republic makes little sense at a time of the year when all the work is non-contact, according to a Fermanagh contractor who operates on both sides of the border.

An organisation representing contractors in the Republic has called for a bar on the workers crossing the border, linking their movement to a spike in coronavirus cases in Cavan and Monaghan.

But one contractor based in Fermanagh said the claim was "fairly foolish" as the farm work ongoing now and in the near future is all non-contact.

"Any of the agricultural work is non-contact this time of year - fertilising, reseeding and cutting silage," said Jamie Gormley, of Gormley Contracts in Belleek.

"There is still the older generation of farmers who want to jump in the cab, and you have to make clear to keep a distance."

The Association of Farm and Forestry Contractors in Ireland (FCI), which represents 500 contractors employing 10,000 workers, said workers from Northern Ireland were "putting the health of Irish farmers and their families at significant risk and undermining the huge national coronavirus effort," the Sunday Times reported.

But Mr Gormley said the FCI suggestion "is fairly foolish, and I could say that on behalf of other contractors; there is no reason for them to be that way".

He added that there was "a lot of rivalry" among contractors on the different sides of the border, particularly in parts of Fermanagh.

Those on the northern side are around 10% cheaper, possibly due to differences in insurance and machinery costs, the contractor said.

FCI, which has written to Dublin's Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed asking for a halt on seasonal workers coming over the border, did not immediately respond to questions about the rivalry between contractors, and there is no suggestion its call was prompted by anything other than public health concerns.

Dr Gabriel Scally, the Belfast-born president of the Royal Society of Medicine's epidemiology and public health, earlier in the week told the Irish Times a "spillover" from Northern Ireland was the "most likely explanation" for the sharp increase in cases in the north-east, particularly Cavan.

Dr Scally has consistently argued for an all-island response to the pandemic and believes the per capita figures in Northern Ireland are much higher than in the Republic, but that is was difficult to know for definite as NI was a "black hole" when it came to reliable data.

He did not specifically mention farm workers.

Tony Holohan, the Republic's chief medical officer, said at a briefing that the rise in Covid-19 infections in border counties is not likely to have been caused by a "spillover" from Northern Ireland.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre reported that the number of cases in the Republic's north east rose by 820% in three weeks. Cavan overtook Dublin as the county with the most cases per head of population.

Minister for Business Heather Humphreys, a TD for Cavan-Monaghan, dismissing claims that the high rate in those counties is linked to cross-border travel, said: "There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest it. The surge, she said, is more likely linked to outbreaks in nursing homes and in Cavan General Hospital."

Belfast Telegraph