Agriculture Minister faces grilling as meat factory infections spiral

Meat factory bosses have been blamed for a spike in Covid-19 infections amid claims staff were forced to work alongside sick colleagues and no protective equipment was supplied.
Agriculture Minister faces grilling as meat factory infections spiral

Additional reporting by Conall Ó Fátharta

Meat factory bosses have been blamed for a spike in Covid-19 infections amid claims staff were forced to work alongside sick colleagues and no protective equipment was supplied.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed now faces a grilling over the controversy with over 600 cases confirmed in plants across the country.

Union leaders also want a special task force set up, warning that the living conditions for workers in the sector has been a major contributing factor to clusters of the virus breaking out in plants.

Meat factory workers have claimed they were asked to return to work despite other colleagues being sick and showing symptoms of Covid-19.

Workers also told RTE's Today show that sick colleagues had returned to plants, including those with temperatures, that no social distancing was practiced on production lines and that no protective equipment, such as masks, were made available until very recently.

Workers are reluctant to identify themselves for fear they could face repercussions from employers or colleagues.

Former minister and independent TD Denis Naughten has now secured Dáil support to bring Mr Creed to Leinster House next week to explain how several meat processors across the country have seen a large proportion of their employees contract Covid-19.

The Roscommon-Galway TD said there are now clusters of infection surrounding meat plants "where the levels of infection within the plants themselves is up on one third or, in some instances, half of the workforce”.

Mr Naughten, who has spent weeks looking into the issue, also said people did not self-isolate in the period between being tested and the results being returned which seriously undermines the validity of the negative results.

“These failures in the system have resulted in new infection clusters in communities across the country which up to now had low levels of Covid-19 infection.

"If these fundamental issues are not addressed immediately, in advance of the easing of the lockdown next Monday, then we could very quickly be looking at a second spike in Covid-19 infections."

Siptu has claimed some meat processing plants "completely ignored" HSE guidelines on Covid-19.

The union's deputy general secretary Gerry McCormack said there were problems at meat processing plants from the "beginning" of the crisis.

"What seems to have happened is that some employers really didn't take this seriously. Some of them did. Some employers completely ignored the recommendations from the HSE on how to do physical distancing and put in proper processes to protect workers," he said.

Mr McCormack compared the situation in the meat sector with that of the dairy sector which he said was better paid and better regulated.

"If you contrast, for example, the meat industry with the dairy industry which are both providing food throughout this country and abroad and we have very little, if any, outbreaks in the dairy industry. It's a well paid, well regulated industry, as compared to the meat industry. We had a problem from the very beginning in that some employers weren't taking this seriously," he said.

The union has also called for the immediate creation of a ‘farm to fork’ meat industry taskforce, involving government, to deal with the spike in infections.

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