Coronavirus: Restrictions on the agriculture sector

At 1pm on Thursday 26 March, new laws came into force imposing severe trading restrictions on many businesses and curtailing people’s rights of free movement. The way in which these regulations are enforced will have a major bearing on the lives and livelihoods of farmers and those living and working in the countryside. Understanding precisely what the law says you may and may not do, and your rights if stopped, is essential.

It is unfortunate that the way these regulations are written means they are not easily applied to the practicalities of farming; and this has perhaps inevitably led to misunderstanding and confusion on the part of both citizens and the police. If read sensibly, however, the regulations allow farming businesses to continue their essential work of feeding the country.

The new regulations essentially say two things: certain businesses must close and people must not leave their homes except for certain reasons.

Firstly, if you run a farming business you are not required by the regulations to close. Certain businesses are required to close altogether (e.g. bookmakers), while others are required to close their premises to the public but may go on providing a service (e.g. pubs). It is only businesses on that list which are restricted.

Secondly, you are entitled to travel for the purposes of work where it is not reasonably possible for you to do that work from home. For example, outdoor lambing cannot be done from home, nor can crop drilling. So if your business has not been closed, and you need to travel to do your work, you should not be stopped from travelling.

Other essential farm-related travel is not so easily justified under these regulations, however. Making regular trips to your farm supplies shop will be essential and is part of your “work”. Even if you are not making the trip for immediately essential products which you need for the welfare of livestock, like colostrum, you could still quite legitimately say that the trip is part of your “work”.

If you are stopped by the police, it is very important to explain to them precisely why you are on the road and how it relates to your farm business. Do not assume they understand how your business works. Explain what you produce, that your business is not subject to any restrictions, and precisely how the trip relates to your business. If you have been to your farm supplies merchant, remind the police that those shops are exempt from the requirement to close. Do not be surprised if they are unaware of this; the BBC doesn’t include “agricultural supplies shops” on its list of non-food retailers allowed to stay open despite them being included in the regulations.

Remember that the term “key worker” is not relevant to these regulations – it only relates to when children should or should not be sent to school.

If the police are unwilling to accept that you are travelling for work which you cannot do from home, they will either give you a warning or a Fixed Penalty Notice. This is essentially the same as getting a ticket for a driving offence. You can either pay it or go to court. If you decide not to pay you will be summonsed to the magistrates’ court. It will then be for the magistrates to decide whether you have committed an offence or not. Given the almost total shutdown of magistrates’ courts at the moment, it could be many months before you have the opportunity to explain yourself, so make a detailed written note of what happened and keep it safe.

To find out more about anything covered in this article, please contact Ken Kaar or another member of Thrings’ Agriculture team.

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