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Donnelly agrees there should be reform in workplace practices after latest outbreaks in Kildare, Laois and Offaly

The meat industry today said there have been a high proportion of asymptomatic positive cases among workers.

Health minister Stephen Donnelly
Health minister Stephen Donnelly
Image: Leon Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

Updated Aug 7th 2020, 7:20 PM

THE MINISTER FOR Health Stephen Donnelly has agreed that there should be reform in workplace practices as well as the reform or abolition of Direct Provision in the wake of recent outbreaks that have led to new localised restrictions being introduced for Kildare, Laois and Offaly.

He was speaking this evening after the government announced regular and rapid testing for the coronavirus will get underway for workers meat plants and other large businesses in Kildare, Laois and Offaly. 

The government has confirmed regional restrictions for the three counties following an increase of Covid-19 cases over the past two weeks. 

From midnight residents in either of the three counties are advised not to travel outside of their county. People are asked to only undertake essential travel.

Under the new restrictions, which will last for two weeks, pubs and restaurants are to operate as takeaway only. Childcare facilities will remain open as will retail outlets.  

Rapid testing will begin for workers in large businesses in the three counties, with a focus on food plants – and in particular meat processing facilities. 

The government will also ask the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to step up inspections of meat plants. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar is expected to meet with HSA officials in relation to inspections.

When it was put to Donnelly at a press conference this evening, he agreed that the outbreaks in settings such as meat plants and Direct Provision showed the need for improvement or reform/abolition to such settings.  

“I think that’s right, and that applies across the country,” he said. He said healthcare settings and nursing homes were looking at ways they would have to adapt in a post-Covid future, and that applied to the commercial world also.

Acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn also said that despite the high number of cases being reported from such settings, imposing wider restrictions on the three counties was deemed necessary to lessen the risk of community transmission of the virus. 

He said he recognised how difficult it was to ask the public to “buy in” once again to the restrictions in place. 

Inspections

Increasing numbers of cases have been linked to meat processing factories in Kildare, Laois and Offaly. O’Brien Fine Foods in Timahoe Co Kildare moved to close its doors last night, confirming 80 of its more than 240 staff had tested positive. Today, it said that six more workers returned positive results after a further 42 employees were tested. 

The HSA has said it has undertaken 33 inspections covering each of the meat processing plants connected with a Covid-19 outbreak, along with a number of other plants. A number of these inspections included subsequent follow-up visits as well as joint inspections with public health officials. 

These inspections checked compliance against guidance on Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants in Ireland, return to work protocols and general health and safety requirements. 

It said in the context of Covid-19 and in particular where an outbreak may be in a specific workplace or where inspections required joint attendance with other agencies, prior advance notice may be given to plants. 

The authority said it has received a high level of co-operation from management, staff and contractors in plants inspected and has noted an overall responsiveness to guidance and advice issued both onsite and subsequently.

“As the level of compliance within the meat processing plants was satisfactory no enforcement notices were issued,” it said in a statement today.

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane, meanwhile, said this evening that HSA inspections and testing needs to be stepped up.

He said: “We need very robust enforcement of the back to work protocol and more inspectors on the ground in high risk areas.

There needs to be rolling testing in all food factories and any workplace there is a high risk of transfer. These are hotbeds for the virus.

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) said robust protocols are in place across all plants. This morning representatives from MII met with government departments, Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn and union representative to further review protocols and look at any additional actions that need to be taken.

“Speed of testing results and the track and trace process are critical, as is continuous clear communications with staff around all aspects of dealing with the Covid threat,” the representative body said.

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MII also said that it is clear from this outbreak that a high proportion of workers who tested positive did not have symptoms of the disease.

It is clear once again from this outbreak, that a very high proportion of positive cases were asymptomatic, meaning that employees, contrary to what has been alleged in some quarters, did not display any of the known symptoms of the virus, were not feeling unwell and were not failing to report symptoms. 

“To suggest otherwise is completely inaccurate,” it added.

- With reporting by Christina Finn, Sean Murray

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