Coronavirus spreads to sandwich king

Cantillon: Greencore Northampton plant keeps production going despite outbreak

A near-70 per cent collapse in demand for Greencore’s food-to-go products means the company has headroom when it comes to staffing.  Photograph: Greencore

A near-70 per cent collapse in demand for Greencore’s food-to-go products means the company has headroom when it comes to staffing. Photograph: Greencore

 

With the wider public already more than jittery about the risks of coronavirus, the last thing any food business needs is to find itself dealing with a significant outbreak among its workforce.

That’s what sandwich king Greencore has found itself doing this week after an outbreak in the area infected close to 300 workers at its Northampton factory. The outbreak at the Irish company’s plant made Northampton the worst local authority area in England for Covid-19 infection this week, with the number trebling to 115.8 per 100,000 people in just seven days.

Greencore is the largest manufacturer of pre-packed sandwiches in the UK, supplying most of the big retail multiples, including Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. When it sneezes, Britain’s workforce goes hungry.

Health messaging

Like our meat processors, it employs large numbers of people in lower-wage jobs. Northampton council’s director of public health noted it was “helping employees to understand the risks associated with car-sharing, house-sharing and sharing crowded areas during breaks or commuting to and from work”.

All are issues confronting the very people least able to cope financially with an economic setback, and who may be without the sort of sick pay arrangements that might persuade them, on the back of public health messaging, that a sniffle is a warning of something more serious.

To its credit, Greencore acted quickly, organising private testing for its workers when numbers began to spike in the town.

Staffing headroom

The upside, if any, for Greencore is that a near-70 per cent collapse in demand for its food-to-go products on foot of the pandemic means that company has headroom when it comes to staffing.

Having furloughed more than 4,000 staff and closing three of its plants, many of those remaining are operating below capacity – including Northampton, which accounts for 2,100 of its 11,000 workers.

The company reassured analysts on Thursday that the Covid outbreak would not affect the factory which, it said, remained fully operational with more than enough headroom in staff terms to cover illnesses. The bigger issue will be to ensure its customers don’t stop eating their sandwiches.

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