The HSE is planning to set up a testing centre in Mallow in north Cork for family members of those working at Kepak in Watergrasshill who have tested positive for Covid-19.
The Irish Times has learned that as of 1pm on Thursday, approximately 150 staff at the plant had tested positive for Covid-19, prompting the HSE to set up the special testing facility in Mallow for relatives.
However, the HSE would not comment on the situation at the plant, citing privacy issues and The Irish Times was unable to make contact with management at the plant, which employs some 650, mainly foreign workers.
The union representing many of Ireland’s meat plant staff has called for an industry taskforce to tackle growing numbers of workers across the State contracting Covid-19 in “a perfect storm”.
Siptu manufacturing division organiser Greg Ennis said the Government needs to establish a "farm to fork" meat industry taskforce, with more than 600 cases of the virus reported in plants.
“There is an urgent need for a taskforce involving all meat industry stakeholders to be set up – we need a specific strategy because we don’t want this to turn into a scenario like what happened with the nursing homes,” he said.
Mr Ennis said meat plants offer the potential for “a perfect storm” when it comes to workers contracting Covid-19 as several factors combine to expose the 15,000 or so workers in the country’s 40 meat plants to risk.
He said meat plant staff are working in close proximity to each other on production lines while the older plants also make social distancing difficult with bottlenecks in both canteens and toilets.
Mr Ennis said because the industry is a low-wage economy it means that the many foreign workers working in plants are living together in cramped housing conditions where social distancing is again difficult.
He said workers tend to carpool and end up in close proximity to each other travelling to and from work as they try to reduce their transport costs.
Mr Ennis said Siptu has called for mandatory temperature testing of all meat plant staff and Aontu leader Peadar Tóibín similarly called for the urgent introduction of such testing, given the growing number of Covid-19 cases.
At the end of April, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed confirmed in the Dáil that his department was aware of six plants where workers had tested positive for Covid-19 but Mr Tóibín said the problem had worsened since then.
On Thursday, the Dáil was told of reports that about 60 employees at Rosderra Meats' Edenderry plant in Co Offaly had tested positive for the virus with more test results due. Earlier this month, the Dáil was told of about 100 confirmed cases at its plant in Roscrea, Co Tipperary.
The Department of Agriculture said in a statement that when clusters arise the mater is dealt with by “a HSE-led local outbreak control team, in co-ordination with local plant management”.
“On foot of a number of clusters arising in meat plants, a national outbreak control team, chaired by the HSE and reporting to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, was established.
“The department participates in this team (which has met on May 7th and May 14th). This group now provides oversight and co-ordination of the approach to the prevention and management of Covid-19 outbreaks in meat plants.”