Ipswich MP questions why fruit pickers are being flown in from ‘coronavirus hotspot’

PUBLISHED: 07:45 24 April 2020 | UPDATED: 07:45 24 April 2020

Farmers have chartered flights to bring seasonal workers to Stansted Airport. Picture: LONDON STANSTED AIRPORT

Farmers have chartered flights to bring seasonal workers to Stansted Airport. Picture: LONDON STANSTED AIRPORT


I was surprised by the Government’s admission last week that 15,000 people a day are still flying into the UK without any checks on their medical condition.

I appreciate this is far below what we would expect at normal times but it’s high when compared to countries across the world which have shut their borders completely.

Many of those coming in are also flying in from parts of the world which are dealing with significant outbreaks of their own like the US, China and Italy.

The number of arrivals is difficult to understand, especially when we consider the lockdown in place here. People in Ipswich and across the country are only able to leave the house for exercise, food and supplies or essential work.

And this often comes at a great financial and social cost to people. These strict measures are in place to limit and control the spread of the coronavirus in this country and protect as many lives as possible. So it’s serious concern that our borders aren’t equally as tight.

This week I wrote to the Home Secretary to raise my concerns and those of many constituents who have written to me about this. Ultimately this is an issue where I believe the Government needs to change course.

In the letter I sent I raised the specific case of Romanian fruit pickers being flown into East Anglia as seasonal agricultural workers. Seasonal workers play an important role in the agricultural sector but the risks are great, particularly when we learn that at least some of these workers have come from the city of Suceava, Romania’s coronavirus hotspot.

Every sinew should be strained to make these jobs available to people already in the UK before considering bringing in workers from overseas.

This must include tackling previous things like some farmers’ preference for East European workers who live in fleets of mobile homes on their land so they can dock housing and food costs from their pay, and thereby undercutting British workers. I’ll keep pushing the Government on this issue.

MPs find new ways of working

For the first time, many of the ways MPs hold the Government to account are taking place virtually. My first experience of this was during Wednesday’s meeting of the Education Committee which took place on Zoom.

I’m glad the technology was well organised because this was an important meeting to go ahead. It was an opportunity for the Committee to directly question Vicky Ford, an Education Minister, on the impact of coronavirus on children and the education sector.

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For my part, I focused my questions to the Minister on a few key areas where concerns have come to my attention. Principle among them is attendance at school among vulnerable children which has been reported as being as low as 5%.

This includes vulnerable children who have been identified as being at risk of abuse or neglect at home. I am of the view that attendance at school is one of the vital ways we can safeguard these children, and the Government should be going further and requiring these children to attend school.

I appreciated the Minister’s reassurance that vulnerable children are still being checked up on at home, whether in person or on the phone, but there is a real risk that these check-ups might miss the physical and behavioural signs of abuse which can be picked up on in a school environment.

This lockdown must not be a time where abuse can go undetected behind the scenes and I’ll be following up with the Government to do more.

I also asked the Minister about the support available for children’s mental health. It follows a conversation I had with Suffolk Mind, a local mental health charity, on how this virus is affecting children.

Our mental health is tightly tied to basic emotional needs like security, a sense of purpose and community interaction. And it’s easy to see how the lockdown can have an impact on people’s ability to meet these needs.

This is a particular concern for children, who can develop long-term mental health issues if these needs aren’t met for a prolonged period of time. And at committee, I cited a recent survey of young people with a history of mental needs which found that 83% of them felt their mental health had got worse during this crisis.

That’s why I called on the Government to make a more comprehensive package of support available online to educate parents and carers on how they can best look after their children’s emotional well-being.

This at a time when parents and carers are spending extended periods of time with their children and the majority of official advice online only touches on what the symptoms of mental health problems may be.

Where next in the coronavirus crisis?

I think it is important to take stock of where we are and how far we have come through this pandemic. It has been over a month now since the lockdown and it was just a few weeks ago that there were real fears that the NHS could be overwhelmed with doctors put in the terrible position of having to decide who to treat.

This has not happened – even as we go through the virus’s peak. And while issues remain around PPE and testing, it’s a credit to the way this country has come together to fight the coronavirus that the NHS has thus far been protected to a large extent.

Fortunately, it looks as if the number of deaths from coronavirus is stabilising and starting to fall. And looking ahead the Government must achieve an important balance.

Lift the restrictions too soon, and there is a real risk the virus could resurge, risking lives, putting pressure back on our hospitals and causing another lockdown. But at the same time, this interruption to the economy and our children’s education cannot go on indefinitely.

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