Offaly meat plant suspends operations pending test results

Politicians calling for plant closures amid spike in cases ‘not helpful’, says Varadkar

A Covid-19 test centre outside Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Collins

A Covid-19 test centre outside Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: Collins

 

Extra Covid-19 testing of workers at all of the State’s meat processing plants are to be put in place “with rapid results” in the wake of a sharp rise in the number of cases, following a meeting between Meat Industry Ireland and Siptu.

Mandatory temperature testing arrangements are also to be examined, said Siptu official Greg Ennis, who added that both the union and Meat Industry Ireland will now hold talks with the Health Service Executive to organise the new test rules.

Meanwhile, the last of the four plants affected by the latest upsurge in cases, Tullamore-based Carroll’s Cuisine, has suspended operations following earlier decisions by the other three to shut.

Despite saying on Sunday it would remain open but “constantly vigilant”, Carroll’s yesterday afternoon said it had decided to suspend operations to support public health efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases among its workers remains “low”, it said, but added: “We believe that the best approach is to take this break in operations over the days ahead until we can evaluate the results of comprehensive tests,” said Kieran Carolan, the company’s chief executive.

Independent testing carried out at Carroll’s last week revealed that nine of its 330 workers had the virus, an infection rate of 2.4 per cent. Those workers were now in isolation and are being paid, he said.

Noting that public health and Government advice was that businesses should close when Covid-19 cases occurred, Mr Carolan said it was “essential” that plants were able to supply customers and that they could reopen “once any particular situation is contained and brought under control”.

State intervention

Earlier, Laois-Offaly TD and Minister of State Seán Fleming said the State would have to intervene if Carroll’s “doesn’t do the right thing”, saying he expected the plant would shut “before this day is out”.

However, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said closure decisions were primarily a matter for public health doctors. “I don’t really think it’s helpful for individual politicians to be falling over each other to tell people to close their businesses, or tell people what to do or what not to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland said the Government should examine the practices in the State’s meat plants: “This is low-wage work – dirty, difficult, and dangerous – with a long history of health and safety violations,” said Edel McGinley, the centre’s director.

More than half of all those working in meat plants were foreign workers, she said, and are particularly over-represented in jobs on the factory floor. The centre had received “ongoing complaints” from workers since the March lockdown.

“It is not logical that a factory can run such labour-intensive production at the same pace as prior to the pandemic; it is not business as usual,” she said. “It’s time that workers lives are valued more than profits.”

Every plant with a Covid-19 case should be immediately closed for a fortnight, while deep cleaning took place, she added. All workers should receive full pay, while plants should only reopen gradually with a full role for the Health and Safety Authority and the HSE.

Meanwhile, the centre joined Siptu’s calls for higher pay for all workers, sick pay entitlements, rapid result testing for Covid-19 and regular and unannounced inspections at meat factories by State officials.

The Government should order the immediate closure of affected meat plants, said Labour Senator Jack Wall. “Labour have consistently warned about working conditions in the meat industry and that we cannot rely on the word of Meat Industry Ireland to keep workers safe.”

Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary should immediately establish a working group to examine conditions at meat factories, he said.