The food processing sector in Northern Ireland must keep going amid the coronavirus emergency, the Agriculture Minister has insisted.
Edwin Poots stressed the importance of keeping food on the shop shelves amid ongoing controversy about whether social distancing rules can be safely applied on certain production lines.
Workers at several companies have staged protest walkouts during the week.
Mr Poots addressed the issues at Stormont’s daily Covid-19 press briefing on Friday.
“What is absolutely important is that we keep this processing going because if we don’t keep the processing going we won’t have the food on our shelves, we won’t have the animals coming off the farm, consequently that will create an animal health crisis on the farms which could very quickly become a public health crisis,” he said.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is that we keep our food processing sector going.”
Earlier, First Minister Arlene Foster, Mr Poots’ DUP colleague, said a balance had to be struck between the need to keep production going and the necessity of protecting workers.
Stormont has established a new forum to enable employers and trade unions to discuss concerns.
“Food production is critical to the well-being of everybody in Northern Ireland, because we need to have food to eat,” said Mrs Foster.
“And therefore it is important that employers in the food production world work with the trade unions in this new forum that we’re actually setting up to make sure that there are safe practices in place.
“We were reassured, I think it’s fair to say, to hear some of the safe practices that have been put into place on some of those food production lines.
âThose working in the food supply chain are an essential part of the frontline fight against COVID-19. Their role cannot be underestimated.â - @poots2edwin at todayâs press conference #COVID19 #thankyouagrifood pic.twitter.com/89ZdOt8iVS— DAERA (@daera_ni) March 27, 2020
“So, we have to continue to make sure that the food is available for our people, as well as of course protecting workers who are bringing us that food and producing that food for us.
“It is a balance between those two issues and we need to make sure that the balance is right.”
On Friday, Mr Poots also announced that his department has reached agreement for its accommodation to be used by the health service in the fight against coronavirus.
He said the Northern Health Trust is set to use accommodation at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) Greenmount campus and for the Western Health Trust to use the Enniskillen campus.
“We have offered the health service the use of laboratories for testing, we have provided as many ventilators as we can and an agreement has been reached for the Northern Health Trust to use the accommodation at Greenmount campus and for the Western Health Trust to use Enniskillen campus in a similar way,” he said.
“We will continue to scope how else we can join up with other departments – we are all in this together.”