Covid clusters cause confusion and frustration in towns 

Reports of Covid-19 clusters in large workplaces can lead to fear and frustration in the towns nearby, reports Neil Michael.
Covid clusters cause confusion and frustration in towns 

Barry Fitzgerald, of Fitzgerald’s Butchers in Fermoy. Photographed at his butcher shop, Pearse Square, Fermoy. Picture: Neil Michael.

Confirmation on Thursday that there were hundreds of Covid-19 cases at a meat processing plant in Cork came as no surprise to the people of Fermoy.

The Dáil heard that a meat plant in the county had 226 positive Covid cases but was never closed down, creating a major health risk, TDs were told.

Most of those who were open for business in the town in May remember figures that emerged about the nearby meat processing plant run by Kepak at Watergrasshill.

Those figures were not as high, but they were high enough for people to avoid the town for weeks.

“Almost as soon as stories started emerging about positive Covid-19 cases, we noticed the town suddenly became quieter,” said Pearse Sq family butcher Barry Fitzgerald.

“The place was quiet enough but some places were open at the time and people were out and about.

“But from where we are based, you could see there was a very noticeable drop in the number of people coming into town.”

Cork county councillor Noel McCarthy, who owns the Carry Out off-licence on Emmet St in the town, said: “I have heard businesses lost as much as 50% of their trade for a number of weeks.

“There were cases linked to the town because it’s where Kepak workers live.

But then social media got hold of the story and some of the comments that gained traction were just sheer scaremongering.

"The comments scared people away from the town for a short while, maybe a few weeks, before things returned to normal.”

At the height of the hysteria, a local GP was named in a WhatsApp-originated message which claimed, incorrectly, that she had made a citizen’s arrest of someone she knew to have Covid-19.

The message and others like it claimed that a Covid patient had refused to self-isolate.

Dr Deirdre O'Grady was forced to go public to refute the rumours. She said, at the time, she believed they had been deliberately made up to stir up racial hatred.

“The reality about what actually happened in Fermoy and surrounding areas was that we know only too well that both Irish and other nationalities of Kepak workers were very responsible," said Mr McCarthy. “We know they all had their food delivered to their homes and they all self-isolated.

“We have a thriving community made up of all sorts of nationalities here and however much people on social media might try and sow social discord, it didn’t happen here over the outbreak in Kepak.”

Cork County Council councillor Noel McCarthy, at his Carry Out off licence on Emmet Street, Fermoy. Picture: Neil Michael.
Cork County Council councillor Noel McCarthy, at his Carry Out off licence on Emmet Street, Fermoy. Picture: Neil Michael.

A pensioner on his way past the public park and into town said he was one of the people who stopped going into town.

He asked not to be named, but he said: “I was scared.

“I didn’t really know what to make of it all and I felt I needed to be cautious until we all had a better idea of what was going on.”

People have been frustrated by the lack of clarity from companies affected.

While Kepak issued statements in May regarding the "wide and comprehensive range of Covid-19 control measures" it implemented at all of its sites, people still had unanswered questions. That led to the HSE and gardaí hosting public meetings in which they successfully reassured people that while there was a large outbreak, the matter was being dealt with.

After a few weeks, the hysteria calmed down and the outbreak was contained.

Measures were also taken to provide workers in the town with a fleet of double-decker buses on which they could socially distance themselves from their colleagues on the journeys to and from work.

Although the major outbreak was first revealed in May, by June the Department of Health figures were quite alarming for residents in the Fermoy area.

Nearly 200 cases of Covid-19 had been reported from the area since the beginning of the outbreak, with 116 cases reported in the Fermoy Urban Division and a further 76 reported in the Fermoy Rural Division.

In other parts of North Cork, 22 cases were reported from Rathcormac, five cases from Kilworth, and 15 from Mitchelstown, while 45 cases were reported from Macroom electoral division.

Some 31 cases were reported across the Mallow south urban, Mallow north urban, and Mallow rural divisions.

However concerned people were for a while, the outbreak was not all bad for all businesses in the town.

It has three butchers who all have their own abattoirs and source their own meat locally.

Fitzgerald’s is one of them.

“We have our own farm, and our lamb, pigs and sheep are all locally sourced,” said Mr Fitzgerald.

“While the outbreak affected some businesses, it had the opposite impact on us.

“Our business increased as people were scared off buying meat in supermarkets.

“The meat processors are killing the small butchers, and they are not helped by the big supermarkets.

General view of Fermoy. Picture: Neil Michael
General view of Fermoy. Picture: Neil Michael

“One thing that came from the outbreak affecting meat processing workers who live in the town was that people have become far more supportive of their local butcher.

“They have reacquainted themselves with the fact that not only do we work and live locally, but our meat is local.”

Although he was aware that people in the town had Covid-19 and who also worked at Kepak, but it didn’t stop him from serving meat factory workers from shopping in his butcher.

“None of my customers, regardless of who they are, touch anything in the shop,” he said.

“They come to the counter and they order whatever they need.

“There are Irish people who work in meat factories and I didn’t ask them where they worked or stopped serving them.

“I am aware there are also a lot of Brazillians in the town who also work in meat factories, and some of them shopped at our shop.

“But I was not going down that road of refusing to serve people just because of their nationality.

“I was certainly not going to turn any of them away.”

As for the future and what happens if there is another large outbreak in meat factories in the Cork area, views are mixed.

Some believe they should stay open, regardless of an outbreak.

Others, like Cork County Councillor William O’Reilly, are not so sure.

He said: “People in Fermoy and surrounding towns like Rathcormac, where I am from, were very annoyed that plants that had big outbreaks were not closed.

“People were concerned for the workers as much as they were about the wider situation.

I understand Kepak have gone above and beyond what they need to do to limit infection.

“And I remember only too well that workers who lived in Rathcormac did self-isolate.

“After all, it’s very hard to hide in a place as small as Rathcormac.”

He added: “However, if there is another big outbreak, I would think the plant where the outbreak happens would have to close for a period of time.”

Meanwhile, representatives of SIPTU and Meat Industry Ireland (MII), an employers' umbrella grouping, yesterday agreed a wide-ranging safety protocol for workers in the meat processing industry.

The protocol is aimed at suppressing Covid-19 infections at plants, and helping to reduce the chances of future outbreaks - something the people of Fermoy and surrounding towns will be pleased to hear.

SIPTU Manufacturing Division Organiser Greg Ennis, said: “This protocol is the only national charter agreed by a union in this country with employers to cover safety procedures and processes aimed at protecting workers from Covid-19 infection.

“The protocol includes a commitment to maintaining serial testing of meat plant workforces, ongoing health screening, temperature testing, the mandatory use of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment and stringent hygiene controls.”

And he added: “It has been further agreed that joint employer/worker forums will be established at enterprise level to ensure full compliance with these measures and address other issues related to the Covid-19 crisis.

“The fact that this protocol has been completed in conjunction with MII demonstrates there is a coherent approach by employers and workers’ representatives in the industry which places the health of workers, their families and the wider community as its main priority.”

However, Mr Ennis has a salutary warning about the spread of Covid-19 within meat factories, regardless of where they are in the country.

“For as long as the people who work there do not get sick pay, the country is going to hear about virus outbreaks at plants for the foreseeable future,” he said.

“All the plants should pay, but not all of them do.

“And we know that sick pay - or the lack of it - is a significant vector in the spread of Covid-19.

“Even ion the context of social welfare, workers don’t get paid for the first six days.

“So even if you have symptoms, you don’t really have a choice but to go to work, and that is the anecdotal evidence that is out there.”

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