All routine farm inspections will be paused until 30 April 2020, Northern Ireland's Minister of Agriculture Edwin Poots has confirmed today (March 27).

The move comes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and is part of the wider effort to reduce the spread of the virus.

The news will be welcomed by farmers and takes some pressure off the agri-food sector, which is working hard to ensure the food supply chain keeps moving.

The announcement stated: "All routine farm inspections in the areas of the Environment, EU Area-Based Scheme, Agrifood and Veterinary work, will be paused until April 30."

However 'essential inspections' - such as Public Health Risk Sampling, Brucellosis and bovine Tb Surveillance - will continue where possible.

However, where it has been reported or suspected that there has been, or there is likely to be, potential for a significant impact on public health, animal health or pollution of the environment, the pausing of inspections will not apply.

In those cases, DAERA staff may undertake site inspections on farms (or elsewhere) to assess and resolve any issues.

It comes after three of the UK’s main farm assurance schemes also announced they would suspend face-to-face inspections and instead ask for some information to be provided digitally or via post.

Minister Poots said: “As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to take every reasonable step to protect our customers. We must assess our current workload and look at what is absolutely critical to keep food moving, protect animal welfare and maintain disease control.

“Pausing routine inspections in the short term is necessary to protect farmers and staff and it ensures we can direct the department’s resources in the best way. It also minimises disruption and provides certainty for farmers at a very difficult time.

These are exceptional times and our approach must also be exceptional. We won’t get another chance to flatten the Covid-19 curve – we must get this right, right now.

"I trust that the farming and environment sectors will welcome this news and we continue to work with our stakeholders."

Writing online, the Minister said he had been co-operating with his counterparts in England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland.

Inspections paused

The list of inspections paused includes the following:

NIEA

  • Planned inspections for SMR1 (nitrates and phosphates);
  • Inspections for SMR2 (Wild Birds) and SMR3 (Semi-natural Habitats).

EU Area Based Schemes Inspections

  • Rapid Field Visits (RFVs) for the Basic Payment Scheme;
  • Hedge Mitigation inspections;
  • New Business ID inspections;
  • Inspections for the Farm Business Improvement Scheme-Capital Tier 2 grant payments.

Veterinary inspections

  • Routine Inspections – These include animal welfare, cross-compliance, cattle identification inspections, sheep identification inspections and enforcement inspections. The only exceptions would be reactive inspections, if absolutely necessary, to investigate serious animal welfare incidents or serious animal health breaches (for example bovine TB fraud).
  • Scheduled Official Control inspections.
  • Other Animal Disease Surveillance - including post-import sampling of GB sheep for Maedi-Visna, and the scrapie monitoring scheme for sheep.

Inspections continuing include:

  • Bovine TB Surveillance;
  • Brucellosis and all suspect epizootic disease cases on-farm, such as Foot-and-Mouth, Avian Influenza, Bluetongue etc. will continue to be investigated;
  • Public health risk sampling;
  • Environmental Farming Scheme inspections.

The position will be kept under review as the situation develops and a further announcement on routine inspections will be taken by April 30, 2020.

The department is also considering alternative ways of working - for example, making greater use of imagery, considering different types of evidence that customers can provide, and looking at options which reduce face-to-face interaction.

Minister Poots added: “I also want to use the time to identify if there are better and smarter alternative ways of undertaking routine inspections which could also help protect farmers and staff going forward.

“The overall approach and proposals to pause inspections is generally in line and consistent with what is happening in other jurisdictions within the UK, for many of their routine inspection programmes. We will, of course, keep all these steps under review.”