Production at Brady’s Ham plant in Kildare stops after 80 staff test positive for Covid-19

Firm taken aback by flare-up given ‘rigour and low level of confirmed cases up to now’

August 6th, 2020: Dr Ronan Glynn has asked people living in Kildare, Laois and Offaly to "double down" on basic public health behaviours following a spike in Covid-19 cases in the region. Video: RTÉ

 

More than one-quarter of staff working for one of the country’s best known cooked ham brands have tested positive for Covid-19 in a huge outbreak that bosses say has left them mystified.

Production has been shut down at the family-run Brady’s Ham plant in Timahoe, Co Kildare, after the virus spread and infected at least 80 employees. Testing continues on dozens more.

Management said it is “difficult to comprehend” the sudden spike given the “level of rigour and our comparatively low level of confirmed cases up to this point”. There were two isolated cases in May.

Mass testing of the 300-strong staff was ordered on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday following a decision by management and the Health Service Executive over the weekend.

The first confirmed case of the cluster was on Thursday last week. Some 243 tests have been completed since and 42 are ongoing. The company said a “very high” number of positive cases were asymptomatic.

Outsourced testers were hired in to help accelerate the response.

A spokeswoman for O’Brien’s Fine Foods, which runs the plant, said all close contacts of those infected have been asked to self-isolate and the factory was undergoing a deep clean.

“Since the first cases of Covid-19 were identified in Ireland last February, we have operated with an abundance of caution and safety,” she said, adding that the plant had been “fully audited by the relevant inspectors” in recent months with “no issues identified”.

The outbreak is the latest in a number of clusters centred at meat factories in Co Kildare, provoking concerns among local family doctors, politicians and the public.

The Kildare Chilling Company meat plant in Kildare town, which employs 350 people, confirmed a “number of Covid-19 cases” at the factory, but declined to disclose the exact figure.

Irish Dog Foods, in Naas, remains closed for a second week after between 30 and 40 cases were confirmed at the plant. A company spokesman refused to disclose the total number of staff who have tested positive to date for the virus.

Local reaction

Allan Shine, chief executive of the County Kildare Chamber, said meat factories were among “the hardest businesses to control mainly due to their nature of business and the number of people employed”.

“Our hope is [that O’Brien Fine Foods] can reopen as soon as the authorities allow as the O’Brien family are a huge employer in Kildare,” he said.

The spokeswoman for O’Brien’s Fine Foods said staff at the company “receive full pay for any Covid-related illness or absence”.

Dr Brendan O’ Shea, a Newbridge GP who represents the county in The Irish College of General Practitioners, said doctors “are concerned” but “not surprised or panicked” at the spike in cases.

“Clearly the rise in cases is a concern, but we are now in quite a different position than we were in March,” he added.

Dr Cathal Berry, Independent TD for Kildare South, linked the clusters to an “almost invisible cohort of workers in our society, mostly in low-paid and unskilled jobs, who may also be foreign nationals, who are living with others often in cramped accommodation due to the cost or renting or buying property”.

An ongoing poll has found nine in 10 migrant meat factory workers do not get sick pay.

Bríd McKeown, workplace relations co-ordinator at Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), said it is “outrageous” workers are worried about losing wages if they fall ill or ring in sick during the pandemic.

Almost six in 10 of the more than 15,000-strong workforce in the meat processing industry are migrants, according to MRCI. It has polled almost 100 in recent weeks in a continuing study into their conditions.

Workers in some plants say they still do not feel safe as employers – some of whom “have a poor health and safety record” – are being trusted to “completely manage” the response to the crisis, said Ms McKeown.

“Ultimately money seems to be the bottom line here and a lot of workers feel like the meat is treated better than they are. One said if the infection was in the meat, plants would close,” she said.

Language barriers meant Covid-19 advice was not being properly communicated to some migrant workers, who are mostly Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Latvian, Moldovan, Slovakian, Brazilian, South African, Botswanan and Filipino.

Another concern is losing their immigration status – which is tied to their work permit – if they raise concerns about working conditions, said Ms McKeown.

“Workers tell us that if they say anything their employer says they’ll send you back to Brazil or wherever. Employers know full well the power they have.”

While those on work permits can technically change employer it is “extremely difficult and costly to do so. And even if they do, it is within the same sector.”

Ms McKeown criticised the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) – which is responsible for oversight of workplaces – for forewarning employers about inspections.

“Workers say they can see when a workplace is getting ready for an inspection, with some staff given the day off, and signage being put up in the 48 hours prior to inspectors arriving,” she added.

Workers also complained that there has been no easing in production during the crisis, with staff at some plants worried about a “backslide” in coronavirus measures – particularly around distancing, wearing masks and congregating in common areas.

Almost half (48 per cent) felt measures were not being fully implemented, while nearly six in 10 (59 per cent) didn’t feel safe at work.

Meat Industry Ireland (MII), which represents the industry, said protocols for factories are “robust and every possible measure is being deployed in our members’ processing facilities . . . Assertions to the contrary are misleading,” it said.

Outbreaks in factories are a “stark reminder of the persistent threat of Covid-19 and the relentless effort and focus that has to be maintained to keep it out of processing plants, protect staff, and at the same time, keep the food supply chain in operation”.

MII senior director Cormac Healy has previously told an Oireachtas committee some companies offer sick pay and some do not. “I don’t know the overall position across the industry,” he said.

Concern over spread

The HSA said it has carried out 2,731 Covid-related workplace inspections between May 18th and July 31st. The vast majority are unannounced “but there are circumstances where advance notification may be required”, said a spokeswoman.

“For example, where it is essential for inspectors to meet with specific individuals at the place of work or to ensure a particular activity is active so as to allow inspectors to observe.”

The HSA said it is working with the National Outbreak Control Team to address ongoing flare-ups in meat factories.

The Government’s decision to further postpone an easing of lockdown restrictions this week followed a warning by acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn about “significant and growing” concern over how the disease is spreading.

The Department of Health and the HSE were asked to comment on the findings.

“Multiple significant outbreaks” in workplaces, particularly food factories and construction sites, as well as direct provision centres, are driving a shift in its transmission away from Dublin to other counties, Dr Glynn cautioned.

Of 51 outbreaks in workplaces, almost half (24) were in meat factories. Nine are ongoing, including four at meat plants, involving 94 cases.

Of four new workplace clusters over the last week, half were at meat plants, which accounted for 47 of the 57 overall cases.

Community transmission remains “reasonably low” with a majority of cases accounted for within known outbreaks and close contacts, but Dr Glynn told the Government there is a continued and heightened risk that rising numbers of cases could mean community transmission surges in coming weeks.

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