Coronavirus: Three more deaths reported in North

Total number of cases rises to 275 with Foster and O’Neill at odds over closing businesses

 Meat factory workers outside the Linden Foods factory in Dungannon on Friday morning. The employees walked out complaining that there were not adequate social distancing measures in place. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

Meat factory workers outside the Linden Foods factory in Dungannon on Friday morning. The employees walked out complaining that there were not adequate social distancing measures in place. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

 

Three more people have died in Northern Ireland as a result of the coronavirus emergency bringing the total number of fatalities to 13, the North’s Public Health Agency said on Friday afternoon.

The agency added that testing had resulted in 34 new positive cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Northern Ireland to 275.

Meanwhile, DUP First Minister Arlene Foster said businesses which could put social distancing in place could remain open.

This appeared at odds with the comments of Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill who said non-essential companies should close.

However, speaking on BBC Northern Ireland’s The View programme Ms Foster said: “If you are operating a business and you can have safe working practices then you can continue to do that.”

“We also need to bear in mind that once we come out the other side of this terrible time we are going through – and which will be with us for some considerable time – we need to make sure we have an economic base to come back to,” she said.

On Wednesday evening Ms O’Neill complained that some companies in Northern Ireland were exploiting their staff by making them work even though their businesses were deemed non-essential in the current crisis.

She said: “We still hear reports about workers being exploited in this public health emergency. They are being given no option by their employers other than to go to work when it is not safe for them to do so. That has to stop. It must stop immediately and shame on any employer that is exploiting their workforce at this time.”

‘Total absence’

The leaders’ comments came as 60 employees from Linden Foods in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, refused to start their shifts on Friday complaining about insufficient social distancing in the workplace.

Brian Hewitt, Unite’s union regional officer for workers at the meat processing company, said that there was a “total absence” of social distancing measures on the boning line, in the canteen and at entry and exit points

Mr Hewitt also complained that management had provided no additional wash facilities and failed to stagger breaks.

“Everyone needs to take responsibility but company’s actions are putting workers needlessly at further risk,” he said.

“In desperation and fear for their health and wellbeing, this morning approximately 60 workers refused to enter the workplace and sought assurances from management that two metres spacing would be adopted throughout,” Mr Hewitt added.

Linden Foods issued a statement saying its “utmost priority has always been and continues to be ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees and is at the forefront of our decision-making”.

“In light of the evolving pandemic we have been actively implementing a range of measures across all our sites to provide a safe working environment,” it said on Friday afternoon.

The company said 40 employees had not turned up for work.

It added: “We have doubled the size of our canteens, have erected new multiple handwashing units at the entrance to all our sites, increased sanitising units which are closely monitored, staggered breaks, erected new temporary changing facilities, [are] carrying out temperature checks on all employees twice daily, reviewed social distancing and are installing screens and respacing work areas, increased PPE [personal protective equipment] and undertaken additional training of our teams.

“We fully appreciate and respect our teams who continue to attend work as key workers, ensuring that the food supply chain functions smoothly to keep the nation fed.”