Welsh meat processors fear a ramping up of Ireland’s Covid-19 wage subsidy system for staff who continue to work is giving Irish firms a competitive edge and could lead to a flood of cheaper imports of beef and lamb.

The scheme previously applied only to employees with incomes less than €24,400 a year which would have ruled out skilled workers in the meat processing sector.

But, as well as the portion of salary paid by the government now increasing to 85 per cent, firms can claim salary support for their higher income earners too.

Industry body British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said a support system that is more extensive and flexible than the one in place in the UK “could conceivably give Irish firms a competitive advantage’’.

With the government picking up most of the bill for salaries, it would significantly reduce the cost of production of Irish processed meat and this could create problems for Welsh processors.

However, to qualify for the aid, businesses must demonstrate a 25 per cent reduction in turnover between March 14 and June 30.

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association (NSA), believed a cut of this scale was unlikely and is concerned that the scheme could be open to abuse.

“There is natural seasonal dip in numbers of lambs being slaughtered at this time of the year and this must be taken into account,’’ he said.

All major Welsh abattoirs are currently operating.

Dawn Meats, which has a meat packing site at Cross Hands, said although there had been strong levels of demand from retail customers in recent weeks, the decline in demand from restaurant and food service customers had reduced its outlet for higher value steak cuts.

This had created an imbalance that is “challenging to manage’’.

“To date we have been able to redeploy staff to serve the increased grocery sector demand, and all our abattoirs are open to receive cattle from our farmer suppliers,’’ said a spokesperson.

Thirteen smaller UK abattoirs processing red and white meat have closed since the lockdown restrictions were put in place.

Norman Bagley, policy director of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), said there were logical reasons for the closures and all were outsourcing the work to bigger plants so there was no interruption in supply to butchers and other customers.

But he is concerned that some of these temporary closures could become permanent, further diminishing the number of small abattoirs across the UK.

“A crisis like this catches businesses out, it was always going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for some abattoirs.’’