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Health Minister criticised by union for not adhering to official recommendation on law to close meat plants

The National Outbreak Control Team urged the Minister for Health to enact the law in July.

Image: Shutterstock/El Nariz

LEGISLATION THAT WOULD allow meat processing plants to be closed due to Covid-19 outbreaks has yet to be enacted by the Government despite a recommendation four months ago that it should do so.

The National Outbreak Control Team (NOCT) urged the Minister for Health to enact the regulations in July in a report into a series of Covid-19 clusters in meat factories.

The recommendation followed an investigation by the multi-agency team into how outbreaks in meat plants occurred and were managed at the start of the pandemic.

It was made just weeks before the Government imposed restrictions on Kildare, Offaly and Laois, due to a significant rise in Covid-19 cases in the three counties which were linked to outbreaks in meat factories.

The NOCT said it had received legal advice that the government could sign off on powers to close meat factories as part of legislation introduced earlier in the year to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

However, despite the NOCT urging Health Minister Stephen Donnelly to immediately enact the regulations that could do so, a spokesperson for his department told TheJournal.ie that the recommendation has not yet been adhered to.

SIPTU manufacturing division organiser Greg Ennis said he was “not surprised” at what he described as the Government’s “inaction” in signing off on the regulations.

“As of now, a number of similar recommendations are sitting on a desk while meat factory workers contract Covid-19,” he said.

“I really fear that there will be further outbreaks unless the Government acts.”

Investigation into clusters

The report by NOCT was carried out after the number of Covid-19 cases associated with meat processing plants became a significant proportion of Ireland’s daily total.

By early July, around 1 in 25 confirmed cases of the virus could be traced back to transmission at meat plants.

Latest figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre show that there have been 58 clusters and over 1,800 cases of Covid-19 linked to meat, fish and poultry processing plants to date.

Four new outbreaks were notified last week, with 15 currently active (i.e. having a reported case within the last 28 days).

Those working in the meat industry have been considered essential workers from the onset of the pandemic, and the fact that many meat factory workers are migrants and live in cramped living conditions was also cited as a cause for the rapid spread of cases.

Unions have also claimed that working conditions led to the further spread of the virus in such settings. 

This week, a report by Migrant Rights Centre Ireland claimed that poor health and safety practices in meat factories showed “a cavalier disregard” for workers – a claim that was subsequently rejected by Meat Industry Ireland.

Following clusters at plants in April and May, the NOCT was established to investigate by reviewing evidence on outbreaks, and to develop national guidance in how to prevent further clusters.

The report, delivered on 27 July, made 19 recommendations supported by international evidence, local epidemiology and local best practice.

The NOCT noted that meat factory workers were “especially prone to outbreaks of Covid-19″ and that the causes driving such outbreaks were varied in nature.

It also warned that although certain infection control measures could reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading in a meat factory, a decision to close a plant “may be considered necessary” in certain circumstances.

In its second of 19 recommendations, the team urged the Minister for Health to enact regulations to allow for the closure of plants under Section 31A of the Health Act of 1947 (inserted under the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act of 2020).

Work ‘ongoing’

However, a statement from the Department of Health said that the recommendation had not yet been adhered to.

“Work is ongoing in the Department to consider options in this regard,” a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that the HSE’s public health departments had responded quickly to emerging outbreaks and that a number of meat plants had suspended operations for a period of time in line with public health recommendations.

A national serial testing programme for workers in the meat industry is also in place in the hope of detecting new cases of Covid-19 as they emerge – though this was briefly suspended in September as capacity in Ireland’s testing system reached its limit.

Greg Ennis of SIPTU called on the government to enact the NOCT recommendation for the well-being of meat factory workers.

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“Frankly it borders on the exploitation of workers, and no worker’s safety should be compromised in the unbridled drive for turnover and profits,” he said.

“These recommendations must be enacted immediately.”

This week, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue told the Dáil that his department had secured funding which will be made available from next week to hire researchers to find solutions to help control Covid-19 oubtreaks in meat factories.

In response to a Parliamentary Question by Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy, the minister said that a study in one Irish plant had established that the re-circulation of chilled air in meat factories could be a particular risk in Irish meat plants.

He added that the funding had been sought for further studies like this, including with a research group and meat processor involved in investigation of a large outbreak in a German meat processing plant.

Earlier this month, McConalogue also told Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns that over 42,190 samples had been tested under the serial testing programme at meat plants, with 219 positive cases detected, giving an overall positivity rate of 0.52% at the time.

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