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Varadkar: 'If public health teams recommend that a meat plant should close, it should close. Full stop'

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said meat barons are playing with people’s lives.

Criticisms have been levelled at meat plant owners who do not publish the number of cases associated with their plants.
Criticisms have been levelled at meat plant owners who do not publish the number of cases associated with their plants.
Image: Shutterstock/El Nariz

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR has told the Dáil that there has been no message from the Government that meat plants should be allowed to stay open contrary to public health advice.

Any decision to close a plant is made solely by public health officials or the health and safety authority, he said.

Varadkar was responding to questions from Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, who asked what hold “meat barons” had on Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Meat plants have been the site of at least 44 clusters throughout the state, accounting for at least 1,600 cases of Covid-19, said Doherty, adding that they were the principal reason for the localised lockdowns in Kildare Laois and Offaly.

Citing a report in The Irish Farmers Journal, he said there were 226 cases associated with one plant back in July.

“We understand that that plant was in Cork under the plant was never closed down. 226 positive cases. Last week, testing and meat plans was suspended, he said.

Doherty also raised another case in the Dáil, stating that yesterday he learned of another outbreak in a plant in Waterford, which is of “huge concern”.

“At this point in time, at least 28 cases are associated with this cluster, more tests are pending. And hopefully the agency’s infection control team are on the ground and you may let me know if that is the case…. workers from the plant were being bused to work on board a packed 50-seater bus, every seat full, people standing in the aisles. And at that time, there are already cases confirmed,” he said, calling it shocking.

“The meat barons are playing with people’s lives, in the interests of profit. Simple, and they’re getting away with it,” said Doherty.

He said the treatment of meat plants is in stark contrast to that of pubs.

Over one weekend in July, there were 6,800 inspections carried out by gardaí of pubs, yet there have only ever been five clusters associated with pubs since the onset of the pandemic.

Varadkar said if the public health teams believe the place of an outbreak should be closed, then the government fully supports that decision.

“I hope that’s abundantly clear,” he said.

He said meat plants are high risk, which is why protocols and serial testing is in place. Varadkar said the positivity rate is very low. 

While serial testing in meat plants had been suspended, it resumed on Monday.

Varadkar said there is no message from government to public health officials or the Health and Safety Authority saying plants should not be closed. 

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He said it is a “paranoid fantasy” to suggest the government has told public health officials that meat plants should be treated with kid gloves. 

Doherty said four out of 10 workplace clusters are occurring in meat plans, stating that is  having devastating consequences to the local economy, but said there needs to be more transparency around the figures. 

Doherty said that communities “deserve clarity and transparency” over clusters of cases.

He told the Dáil that the public having to rely on the “rumour mill” is not good enough.

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