Some of the millions of British workers furloughed during the coronavirus lockdown will be encouraged to take a second job picking fruit and vegetables, the government has said.
Giving the daily COVID-19 briefing, Environment Secretary George Eustice said only a third of the migrant labour needed to help carry out such tasks was in the country.
Although the international food chain was continuing to “work well”, Mr Eustice said he expected there would be a need to recruit staff in the UK to harvest crops in the coming weeks.
“We’re also acutely aware that we’re about to start the British season in fresh produce, in soft fruits and salads.
“We estimate that probably only about a third of the migrant labour that would normally come to the UK is here, and was probably here before lockdown.
“We are working with industry to identify an approach that will encourage those millions of furloughed workers in some cases to consider taking a second job, helping get the harvest in June.”
He added: “It’s not an issue at the moment since the harvest has barely begun, but we do anticipate that there will be a need to recruit staff for those sectors in the month of June.”
Earlier this month, farmers defended the transportation of 150 workers from Romania to the UK amid the unemployment crisis caused by COVID-19.
Farmers voiced fears that without the workforce, crops may be left in the ground to rot and be wasted as the nation moves to feed itself during the coronavirus pandemic.
They also argue that harvesting crops is skilled work and many Eastern European workers return to the same farms each year.
Up to 80,000 workers help farmers harvest their crops across the UK, the vast majority from Eastern Europe. Only 10-15% of those workers are based in the UK and the rest fly in for the season.
Many farmers have tried hard over the years to recruit British workers but following a period of high employment have found it difficult.
The Feed the Nation campaign has said it is working to find farming jobs for people from mid to late May onwards.
Following the coronavirus crisis, 1.4 million people have claimed Universal Credit and millions more have been temporarily suspended from work on reduced pay.
At the same Downing Street news conference, Mr Eustice also said there were isolated cases of trade being disrupted by the pandemic, including goods coming from India.
He said supermarket chains had boosted the number of delivery slots from 2.1 million at the start of the outbreak to 2.6 million, with the number set to increase to 2.9 million in the next fortnight.
More than 430,000 businesses have applied for the government’s scheme to pay the wages of 3.2 million furloughed workers.
Firms impacted by COVID-19 are able to claim for government cash to pay 80% of each employee’s wages, up to £2,500 per month.