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Nearly 1,500 cases linked to 28 meat factory outbreaks across the country

In the 28 days up to 15 August, there were 330 confirmed Covid-19 cases associated with meat/poultry factory outbreaks.

The German government is banning the outsourcing of meat plant staff - meaning workers now have to be employed directly by the company.
The German government is banning the outsourcing of meat plant staff - meaning workers now have to be employed directly by the company.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

THERE HAVE BEEN a total of 1,445 confirmed Covid-19 cases associated with 28 meat/poultry factory outbreaks across the country since the start of the pandemic.

The figures are revealed in the same week that the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) recommended against the lifting of the lockdown restrictions in Kildare. 

Localised restrictions in the county were last week extended for a fortnight after being first introduced on 7 August along with Laois and Offaly.

Laois and Offaly saw restrictions lifted but in Kildare they were extended until 6 September. 

While the initial measures were introduced due to significant and large-scale outbreaks in meat processing plants, the Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn explained this week, that the outbreaks have transgressed into an “escalation in small household clusters”.

He explained the localised restrictions were needed in order to stop the spread of the virus in the community.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has also confirmed to TheJournal.ie, that in the 28 days up to 15 August, there were 330 confirmed Covid-19 cases associated with meat/poultry factory outbreaks. 

The numbers above are not confined to factory/processing workers and may include community cases who are likely to have acquired their illness from one of the outbreak cases.

Additional cases are understood to be under investigation by Regional Departments of Public Health as being potentially linked to outbreaks in meat/poultry factories, but the HPSC does not have this information, TheJournal.ie was told.

The numbers are likely to be a lot higher than those released by the HSPC which also shows a two-week lag in the figures.

This week alone, 22 positive cases of Covid-19 were identified among workers at an ABP Food Group meat processing facility in Cahir, Co Tipperary. 

The plant has operated at a “limited capacity” since the first case was identified on 14 August.

The 460 staff at the plant were tested following guidance from the HSE. All close contacts of those who tested positive were told to self-isolate. 

The testing of close contacts has so far resulted in an additional 16 positive cases of Covid-19. 

But Tipperary is not alone. There have been a number of positive Covid-19 cases confirmed at meat processing plants across the country.

RTÉ reported this week that positive cases were confirmed at a plant in Clones, Co Monaghan, with a further four cases being confirmed at the Rosderra Irish Meats plant in Clara, Co Offaly.

Last Thursday, Cranswick Country Foods in Cullybackey, Co Antrim said it would temporarily close after a number of staff members also tested positive.

It closed last weekend for a deep clean and to allow all staff members to be tested, the company said.  

Kildare has borne the brunt of the localised restrictions imposed due to large-scale outbreaks in settings such as meat factories – and is an example of what can happen to a town or region due to clusters surfacing in known high-risk sectors such as meat processing plants.

On Thursday, Dr Glynn said the cases per population in Kildare were higher than any other county in the country.  

“In relation to Kildare, we did meet today and unfortunately although the situation seems to be improving and stabilising, it hasn’t improved or stabilised to the extent that we would need,” he said. 

It still has the highest 14-day incidence in the country, it still has the highest 7-day incidence in the country. So we will continue to monitor it very closely.

“We’re very very conscious of the effect that the measures are having on the people there but at this point, it’s too early to relax the measures,” he added. 

Spotlight must return to where clusters are happening

While the focus has been on other matters in the last number of days, the spotlight must be placed back on what the government is doing to prevent further localised lockdowns in other towns around Ireland.

A nationwide serial testing programme of meat processing plants began last week – but it is it enough?

Earlier this month, AA Euro Group, who provides agency staff to meat factories, confirmed on RTÉ’s Prime Time that it does not pay sick pay. AA Euro Group’s Pat McCarthy said it was a legislative issue and if every factory had to pay sick pay, it would follow suit. 

Junior Minister in the Department of Agriculture, the Green Party’s Pippa Hackett, has called for workers in the sector to be given greater access to sick pay.

This followed a disagreement between trade union Siptu and lobby group Meat Industry Ireland at the Special Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 recently over the exact number of workers in the sector who are entitled to receive sick pay.

Based on a survey of its own members, MII said it was about 20% but Siptu says that it’s just 10%. Either way, it’s a low proportion, dangerously low, you might argue, in the context of a pandemic.

Sick pay

Dr Glynn was asked about the issue of sick pay for workers in the context of reports of some employees presenting to work despite showing symptoms. 

He said NPHET did not want to “step outside” its area of expertise or competency, but said a clear recommendation was given to government a number of weeks ago that “whatever measures need to be put in place to ensure that workers’ fears or worries about employment or financial concerns, neither of those things should preclude someone who is in employment from putting up their hand up immediately”.

Meat plant outbreaks are not isolated to just Ireland, they have occurred across Europe.

The environment means it is difficult to keep workers two metres apart, and the cold and damp indoor setting allows for the virus to linger and spread.

How other countries have handled meat plant outbreaks

Different countries have taken different measures to take control of the outbreaks.

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In the UK, workers were told to stay at least two metres apart where possible, factories are being cleaned more often than usual, and measures have been introduced to isolate staff who develop symptoms.

In Ireland, an interim report on the meat factory outbreaks recommends that production levels should be set at a level that allows physical distancing to be put in place.

If two metres of space between work stations cannot be attained, Perspex screens should be installed between each person.

Staff in the production area should wear PPE and start times should be staggered to allow for social distancing.

However, Germany went one step further and acknowledged that the nature of the work and the use of temporary staff was having an impact on virus transmission. 

The German government is banning the outsourcing of meat plant staff – meaning workers now have to be employed directly by the company.

Laws are to be introduced to ensure those that don’t employ staff full time will face fines of up to €30,000.

One of the key issues raised by the German authorities when they looked at the meat plants’ was the closed ventilation systems which cooled recycled air and the temperatures within the plant which aided the virus. 

It is noteworthy that there is no mention of ventilation in the HSPC’s interim report for Ireland.

Did Ireland consider banning the hiring of agency workers?

When asked did the Irish government consider doing the same, a spokesperson for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection told TheJournal.ie:

“Rather than a blanket ban being imposed on a particular operating model in a particular sector, preference should be given to ensuring that workers are correctly classified according to their own and the business’ circumstances.”

It said that self-employment, full-time employment, part-time employment, temporary agency work, fixed contracts and other arrangements can all be legitimate ways of working depending on the circumstances, stating that no worker should be excluded from their proper entitlements.

“Any misuse of an otherwise legitimate operating model or any misclassification of workers as being self-employed when their terms and conditions are such that they are, in reality, employees, is a matter of concern. Such misclassification improperly reduces contributions to the Social Insurance Fund and excludes workers from their full PRSI entitlements as well as some employment rights protections.

“The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is actively engaged in reducing the prevalence of the misclassification of workers’ employment status across many sectors, including the meat processing sector.”

The 1,445 number of confirmed Covid-19 cases associated with the meat and poultry factory outbreaks across the country will no doubt rise.

If it results in further lockdowns in other regions, the spotlight should be placed back on government as to whether it did enough the first time around.

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