Jobs site for British fruit pickers 'unavailable' immediately after minister urged public to visit it

A government website advertising seasonal fruit picking jobs for British workers was "unavailable", just moments after the environment secretary urged people to visit it.

The website "Pick for Britain" - which George Eustice said contained fruit picking job adverts, showed the message "the service is unavailable".

Mr Eustice said British workers, "particularly those who are furloughed", should visit the website in order to "help bring that harvest home" because "only about a third" of the normal fruit picking workforce is available this year.

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said it was aware of the issue and was working to rectify it.

It comes amid a shortage of foreign workers in the UK, which even prompted Prince Charles to call for a Second World War-style army of workers to prevent Britain’s crops going to waste.

The Prince says the coronavirus crisis has taught us all that food is “precious and valued” and that it should not “be taken for granted”.

He said: “If we are to harvest British fruit and vegetables this year, we need an army of people to help.”

The UK’s agricultural sector is concerned that tonnes of the country’s fruit and vegetable crops could be left rotting in the fields unless more people come forward to find work.

Migrant labour is hugely restricted this year because of the travel restrictions imposed around the world to prevent the spread of the virus.

Compared to previous years there are currently much fewer people in the UK from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria which usually "take part in the harvest".

Mr Eustice said: "Only about a third of the people who would normally come are already here and small numbers may continue to travel.

"But one thing is clear and that is that this year we will need to rely on British workers to lend a hand to help bring that harvest home."

He suggested furloughed workers “may be getting to the point that they want to lend a hand and play their part, they may be wanting to get out and they may be wanting to supplement their income”.

Anyone feeling that way, he said, should visit the "Pick for Britain" website which enables people to go online and check what jobs are available.

A previous plea for Britons to join the fruit picking work force saw just 112 people take up roles out of 50,000 applications, according to the Daily Telegraph.

He also gave an update on the UK's official coronavirus death toll, which is now at least 35,341 - an increase of 545 from the day before.

In the 24-hour period up to 9am on Tuesday, 89,784 tests were carried out or dispatched, he added.

There's currently a shortage of fruit pickers in the UK. Credit: PA

Professor Dame Angela McLean, deputy chief scientific adviser, said there was a “sustained decline across all four of our nations” in the numbers of Covid-19 hospital patients requiring mechanical ventilation – a marker of those who have been worst affected after contracting the virus.

Talking viewers through the presentation slides at the daily Downing Street briefing, Dame Angela also said there was a continued “steady decline” in the number of coronavirus-associated deaths demonstrated in the published data.

The latest update from the government follows a warning from Chancellor Rishi Sunak that the UK will "likely face a severe recession the likes of which we have not seen".

Mr Sunak, giving evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, said "lockdown is having a very significant impact on our economy", despite the "unprecedented mitigating actions" imposed to protect the economy.

Environment Secretary George Eustice. Credit: 10 Downing Street

He said even as the sections of society are released from lockdown, it is "not obvious that there will be an immediate bounce back" from the economy.

Earlier ministers were accused of being "too slow" to protect care homes from coronavirus, after figures from the ONS showed the UK's death toll had exceeded 44,000.

It is not clear exactly what Mr Eustice will give an update on, however he earlier told the Commons he is hopeful pubs will able to reopen in July.

He's likely to be quizzed on the issue by journalists at the press conference.