Taoiseach orders review of rules for foreign workers following arrival of fruit pickers

Keelings says all 189 Bulgarians were medically screened before travelling

In recent years, Keelings has brought in hundreds of experienced workers from countries including Poland, Latvia and Bulgaria who typically work over a six-month season. Photograph: Alan Betson

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has ordered a review of the rules around foreign workers after a fruit producer was criticised for flying almost 200 Bulgarians into Ireland to work on its farms.

The 189 workers flew into Dublin on a chartered aircraft on Monday to carry out seasonal work on Keelings fruit farms.

Following criticism, Keelings insisted the workers had all been medically screened before arrival.

"All had been health screened by a doctor before they travelled to Sofia airport where they were temperature checked before entry," the company said. " They were taken straight to their housing. In accordance with HSE guidelines, they cannot work for 14 days after their arrival and their movements are restricted."


However, when asked about the workers at a briefing on Friday, the Department of Health's chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, said he was not comfortable with the idea of a company chartering a flight to bring in staff.

He referred to “consistent public health advice” and said medical authorities would continue to keep the issue of travel on their agenda.

In a statement on Friday night, Mr Varadkar said he “shares the discomfort expressed” by Dr Holohan.

“We need to keep our airports and ports open so essential goods and essential workers can get in and out of the country and Irish citizens and residents can return home,” he said. “However, we need to keep travel to a minimum and ensure that passengers are interviewed on arrival and that quarantine is observed.

“I have therefore asked for an urgent review of the current rules and procedures to be carried out over the weekend.

“That review will be considered by the Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 on Monday and any changes that are necessary in light of that review will be made.”

Keelings, which said it usually employs 900 staff each season, said the workers would be “subject to further medical screening” before beginning work. “We will continue to consult with the HSE and other appropriate agencies to ensure both our staff and the communities they live in remain safe.”

In recent years, Keelings has brought in hundreds of experienced workers from countries including Poland, Latvia and Bulgaria who typically work over a six-month season.

Social distancing

Some residents of a Co Louth village, where many Keelings workers are based, said they were worried about the standard of social distancing on display.

One source said the workers appeared to live in close quarters and many used a local shop in a small community. They said concern over the potential spread of coronavirus in such circumstances was “very high at the moment”.

“But you have to balance it. There are a lot of locals who are not social distancing properly.”

A spokeswoman for Keelings did not comment on those specific concerns.

Social Democrats TD for Dublin Bay North Cian O’Callaghan said urgent clarity was required around quarantine measures for seasonal workers arriving in Ireland.

“Much more needs to be done to reassure the public; we need to know what measures are in place to ensure appropriate and safe physical distancing for seasonal workers in their accommodation, workplace and transport,” he said.

People Before Profit said in a statement that inspections of the Keelings facilities should take place “in order to ensure the workers are housed and working in conditions which will allow for social distancing and isolation if needed”.

Fianna Fáil's transport spokesman, Marc Mac Sharry, said the episode had caused understandable public discomfort.

“The Government urgently need to clarify what is and isn’t allowed in terms of the movement of people through our airports” while public health measures remain in place, he said.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times