9 Feb 2022

Covid-19: Some farmers with Covid-19 may be allowed to keep working - Minister

11:16 am on 9 February 2022

Farmers who test positive for Covid-19 may be able to continue working if they're vaccinated and not in contact with others, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says.

The tractor harvester working on the field

Photo: 123RF

The government is giving $400,000 to rural support trusts and other agencies to help farmers and growers prepare a contingency plan as Omicron reaches further into the community.

It is urging farmers, growers and lifestyle block owners to have a plan for who will help run their farm or feed livestock at short notice in the event they test positive for Covid-19.

People who test positive are required to self-isolate for at least 14 days and be symptom-free for 72 hours.

But Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor told Morning Report farmers who are vaccinated, asymptomatic and working "in a bubble" may be able to continue working.

"These are the things we're trying to work through at the moment and I'm sure we'll get to a point where we can manage these issues in a sensible way in rural new Zealand.

"Hopefully we can get to a point where there's a clear policy.

"These are uncertain times, there's a lot we don't know. Being cautious is really important.

"Even though [farmers] don't contact many people they still do come into contact with people, they have workers, they don't want to contribute to the spread, they do want to be able to continue to operate, and if they've been vaccinated, they're asymptomatic, that may very well be possible under a policy that's clear to everyone."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor visits Canterbury to assess damage after days of flooding and heavy rain.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Asked if farmers would be sent, or have access to, rapid antigen tests he said: "We are providing funding to rural support trusts so whatever policy is arrived at, as it evolves, we can inform those people who are uncertain as to what they should do."

Federated Farmers national president Andrew Hoggard said it was a "wait and see" on how effective or needed the contingency fund might be.

"If we have tens of thousands of cases a day, and that's going all across the rural community, will that be enough for rural support trusts to organise all the help that might be needed? Probably not.

"If there's isolated cases of maybe a couple of cases in certain areas ... probably would be enough."

Hoggard said if symptoms of an Omicron infection were mild, farmers may "battle through", but the challenge would be if infections produced more serious illness.

He said the priorities for farmers are ensuring meat processing plants keep operating, and bringing more workers into the country.

"If you ask most farmers what their biggest concern would be it's an outbreak in a meat processing plant which would slow up the ability to get stock off farm."

He said ensuring there were enough rapid antigen tests for meat processing plants was key.

Allowing more workers in to the country more quickly would help the staff shortage, including for rural contractors already desperately short of people to drive their equipment, he said.

"We're already understaffed - if we had an outbreak it's just going to make it worse."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs