The Government’s decision to allow 30,000 overseas workers into the country this year in an extension of the seasonal workers pilot scheme was welcomed as an answer to the recruitment problems facing the South East’s growers.

But the owner of one of two new companies selected to help find and recruit a skilled picking workforce has said that his hands have been tied because he is not yet allowed to announce he has won the contract. South East Farmer has agreed not to name his company.

“We are waiting for the formalities to be completed, but in the meantime we can’t tell people that we have been selected as one of the two new operators,” he said. “I have been in Ukraine for two-and-a-half weeks now, putting everything in place, but there is a limit to what I can do if I can’t formally announce that I have been signed up to do the job.

“The Home Office needs to do its due diligence, and I understand that, but we’ve been waiting for five weeks and growers are running out of time. We are being told that far fewer workers with settled and pre-settled status are showing any interest in working on UK fruit and vegetable farms this year, so it’s vital that we bring in the 30,000 workers DEFRA has agreed the industry can have.

“We should be bringing people in ready for the beginning of May, but at this rate we will be lucky to hit the beginning of June, and that will be devastating for the industry. The Home Office seems to have pinned its hopes on settled and pre-settled workers coming forward, but from what we are hearing, that’s simply not happening.”

Tim Chambers, of W B Chambers Farms Ltd, based just outside Maidstone in Kent, confirmed that the crisis was rapidly becoming serious. He predicted a shortfall of up to 15% on the 1,500 to 1,600 seasonal workers he relied upon and said fruit simply wouldn’t be harvested.

“We will just walk away from the fields,” said Tim, whose family business is one of the biggest growers of soft fruit in the country. “We are very worried about the situation. By introducing this scheme the Government set itself up as the labour agency of last resort for UK farming and they simply aren’t taking that responsibility seriously.

“Even if this red tape is sorted and the recruiters start working now, it’s almost too late. The workforce will need to sort out visas, medical certificates, Covid-19 tests, etc and most of them will have gone somewhere else – Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, for instance – before the companies are given clearance to get on with the job. It’s almost as if the Home Office had set this scheme up to fail.”