The meat industry and health authorities have been slammed after it emerged that a meat plant in Cork had 226 positive Covid cases but never closed down, creating a major health risk.
Local politicians have hit out at the failure of the meat industry and the HSE to move more swiftly to contain the outbreak at the plant or to alert the local communities, describing their actions as “totally unacceptable”.
Speaking in the Dáil, Sinn Féin deputy leader Pearse Doherty revealed the number of positive cases.
He asked why had nothing been done and what hold “meat barons” had over the State.
Mr Doherty said those barons were “playing with people's lives in the interests of profit”, adding that testing was suspended in plants last week when capacity reached 72,000 and not the 100,000 limit.
It has emerged there were 226 cases associated with one plant in July.
“We understand that plant is in Cork, and that it was never closed down,” he said.
"Yet last week, testing in meat plants was suspended.
“Yesterday, we learned of another outbreak in a meat plant in Waterford and this is causing huge concern.
"At least 28 cases are associated with this cluster, more tests are pending, and hopefully the HSE's infection control team are on the ground.”
He said local media in Waterford reported that, earlier this week, workers from the plant were being bused to work on a packed 50-seater bus.
He said meat plants have been the site of at least 44 clusters throughout the State and at least 1,600 cases of Covid-19.
They were the principal reason for the localised lockdowns in Kildare, Laois, and Offaly, he added.
Responding, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar dismissed Mr Doherty’s concerns as akin to “paranoid fantasy”.
“The Deputy can create any kind of paranoid conspiracy theory that he likes, but I guarantee that there is no message, nudge, direction, or policy from Government to say to any public health official that he or she should treat meat factories with kid gloves,” he said sharply.
Mr Varadkar said any decision to close a plant is made solely by public health officials or the Health and Safety Authority.
The Tánaiste defended the Covid-19 testing regime and said an important milestone had been passed this week with the one-millionth test.
“While testing was suspended last week, when there was a huge increase in demand for testing, it resumed last Monday,” he said.
But local politicians voiced their concern as to the high number of cases.
Tim Lombard, a Fine Gael senator who has been demanding answers on this issue for weeks, said it was is “completely unacceptable” for the meat industry and health authorities to allow such a major cluster occur without informing the local community.
He said questions he has been asking have gone unanswered and a “dangerous vacuum” has emerged, which he said has been filled by rumour and counter-rumour.
Local Labour TD Sean Sherlock said: "No Sunday roast is worth people paying with their lives.
"The Department of Agriculture has near-permanent residency in these plants.
In response to queries from the Irish Examiner, the HSE says it does not comment on individual cases or outbreaks to protect the privacy and confidentiality of those involved.
“The details of anyone who engages with the health system, including the Covid-19 testing, tracking and tracing system, is entirely confidential,” it said.
"The HSE-led National Oversight Group closely monitor the investigation and management of any outbreaks associated with such plants."
It said advice to temporarily cease production at a plant would only be given if the public health risk assessment determined that this was necessary to protect public health.
Additional information will only be released when that is in the interests of the protection of the health of the community, the HSE said.
Meanwhile, Dublin is set for a county-wide lockdown as public health officials have recommended extra restrictions to battle the spread of Covid-19.
The National Public Health Emergency Team met on Thursday to discuss putting Dublin into ‘Covid level three’ with further restrictions — which could cause further confusion for the public.
Among the ‘tweaks’ is that travel will be restricted into Dublin as well as out of the county, which has been showing by far the highest Covid-19 figures in recent days.