Disease preparedness – what can we learn from coronavirus?

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how quickly a disease can evolve from being totally unknown to causing global disruption in a matter of weeks.

The ongoing situation has affected all sectors of agriculture slightly differently and introduced ways of working that were previously unheard of, particularly to accommodate social-distancing measures directed by the UK Government.

In some cases, radical changes to workplace operations have been required, bringing their own challenges, including:

  • Reduced staff on farm
  • An increased need to be vigilant regarding worker health and well-being
  • Adapting to virtual-based surveillance – adapting to more virtual veterinary consultations has made identifying early signs of health issues in livestock more challenging
  • Having to adapt quickly to the virtual environment for farm assurance audits, vet visits and training sessions
  • Closure of processing plants and the potential for a backup of pigs on farm

It has also presented opportunities to help us understand how we could better prepare for disease outbreaks in the future.

While focus remains on coronavirus, now is not the time to start relaxing our efforts towards disease preparedness in agriculture. If anything, coronavirus has made biosecurity a dinner-table conversation – from initial panic buying of household cleaning products and toilet roll, to the ongoing requirement for hand sanitiser and surgical face masks, the whole nation has a vested interest in keeping disease out.

Despite the challenges faced, there is still a good window of opportunity for UK producers to test biosecurity procedures and contingency plans, identifying improvements along the way.

The threat of abattoir closures

The closure of the Tönnies processing plant in Germany had the potential to cause issues for UK pig producers. Tönnies is the largest export buyer of UK sows and closure of the plant could see a significant backlog of pigs on farm. Producers were urged to build a buffer into their system to hold a week or more of pigs if needed.

Temporary closures of plants in England also have the potential to cause disruption. While the pork supply chain has remained robust so far, there are vulnerabilities in the system and we must remain prepared, because, for the foreseeable future, disruption to the supply chain could happen at any time.

Could we cope if key pig abattoirs close?

ASF is lurking in the background

The pig industry is all too familiar with the devastation caused by African swine fever (ASF) in China, with outbreaks continuing to be reported across the country. In Europe, further cases have been reported in Poland and, more recently, Germany. ASF will not wait for the coronavirus pandemic to be over; the risk to the UK remains and we must ensure we are as prepared as possible. Coronavirus has given us an insight into what supply chain disruption can look like, from staffing issues to a backlog of animals on farm, so a robust contingency plan is vital.


Now is a good time to review your own ability to hold additional animals on farm. How much capacity does your farm have to hold pigs in the event of a plant shutdown or being placed under movement restrictions?

Our guide can help you develop a contingency plan and provide information on alternative accommodation for pigs.

Contingency planning for pig keepers

Staff well-being

Coronavirus has also been a reminder of the importance of looking after each other. Every UK business and household has been affected differently and all have had to adapt accordingly. The closure of processing plants in the USA, resulting in mass culling of backlogged pigs on the grounds of welfare, was physically and mentally demanding for pig farms and the staff involved. The importance of training for the management of difficult situations should not be underestimated in supporting staff well-being.

Earlier in the year, we teamed up with six mental health and well-being charities to host a series of six weekly webinars covering a range of topics to help support mental health and well-being, specifically in agriculture.

Watch the mental well-being webinars