The current pandemic has affected people’s lives and livelihoods in a way that, rare for a natural disaster in this country, has been felt in every part of the UK. Having experienced the horrors of Foot and Mouth Disease at the turn of the millennium, rural communities have seen something similar to the current lockdown before – but never to this extreme extent, and the countryside is feeling the effects. Tensions around potential unwanted visitors have frayed tempers in some places, but the success in maintaining food supplies across the country is a credit to workers and farmers throughout our food production systems.
Being more sparsely populated, it does seem at first sight that rural areas have been less affected by the pandemic. The first detailed analysis of deaths by the ONS broken down by local area have shown that densely populated urban areas have seen much higher casualties. But with rural populations often older than the national average, a recent study from the University of St Andrews has warned that if the pandemic is long-lasting and the virus spreads to all areas of the UK, it is remote small towns and rural communities that may come to be hit the hardest. With less service capacity in rural areas and hospitals vulnerable to becoming overstretched, these are key and continuing concerns, and the Government must continue to do everything it can to control and prevent the virus spreading.
Labour has backed the measures introduced by the Government but they have too often been behind the curve – late on PPE, late on testing, and the country is paying a heavy price. We want to see a national consensus in the next steps forward, and have laid out seven core principles to ensure public safety. These include a mass expansion of community testing and contact tracing to keep track of the virus, a national safety standard for businesses, schools and other public services to ensure they are safe to use and work in, and a structured approach to easing and tightening restrictions. Getting a grip on the virus in this way will be key to protecting our rural communities.
It has not been plain sailing for our rural areas however, and they are facing some particular challenges – some of which are a direct result of the continued neglect of our rural and coastal areas in policy-making. Labour has long lamented the failures of the past decade to rectify inequalities in educational opportunities in rural areas and poor transport, communication and digital infrastructure links. For many rural communities, poor quality mobile signal and broadband is a continued frustration. At this time when digital connectivity is more important than ever for those forced to work and learn from home, life has become that bit harder for those in rural areas.
This is particularly the case for children being home-schooled, and the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that 1 million children and their families do not have adequate access to a device or connectivity at home. While the Government has rightly set up a scheme to provide electronic devices such as wifi dongles and laptops to disadvantaged children, this is limited, and comes nowhere near to covering the full extent of need. Labour has called for a proper expansion of this scheme, but it is important to recognise that these are short-term solutions to a long-term problem. Fixing the urban-rural divide in digital connectivity must become a priority.
Rural businesses have also been impacted. With agriculture playing such an important role in the rural economy, the disruption to food supply chains during lockdown has hit some farmers hard, particularly the 5-10% of British dairy farmers who usually supply the food service industry. After pressure from Labour and the National Farmers’ Union, the Government are now providing welcome cash support to struggling farmers, but Labour has been clear that this support for rural businesses has taken far too long. The over 1 million litres of milk that had to be disposed of is a shameful waste, and even more so at a time when so many families are facing financial challenges, and foodbank use is once again continuing its meteoric rise.
With borders shut down across Europe, further challenges have also been created for farmers in finding the around 80,000 workers that are needed to pick our crops this year – the overwhelmingly majority of whom have in the past been European workers. It is yet to be seen whether the Government’s “Pick for Britain” campaign to recruit furloughed workers and others will gather the numbers needed. If it does succeed, what is apparent is that this will be another short-term solution for a longer-term issue for rural businesses. As we continue down the Government’s path of leaving the EU, Labour has repeatedly pointed out that the Government’s 10,000 a year cap on agricultural workers guarantees this is a problem that will return year after year to our countryside if a more considered plan is not put in place. That plan must include paying workers better, to make working on the land more attractive.
It’s clear that our rural areas are finding themselves in a difficult position in the current pandemic. Safer, yet vulnerable: provided for, but neglected. There are longer term issues at play here, and coronavirus has exposed these. Rural communities have been pushed to the sidelines for far too long, and they need our attention. In the world that emerges after lockdown, one thing at least is clear: it will be a different world, with challenges and opportunities. For Labour, the challenge will be to show that we have the vision to take advantage of those opportunities to strengthen our rural economies and communities.
Daniel Zeichner MP, Shadow Minister for Food and Rural Affairs
If you’d like to join Daniel’s online session on COVID and the countryside (4th June @ 18:30) you can RSVP here: https://www.danielzeichner.co.uk/rural