Concerns have been raised in the Dáil that meat-processing plants are not putting public health quarantine restrictions in place for workers being flown into Ireland to address staff shortages.
Government backbencher Jennifer Murnane O’Connor called on Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue to confirm that “proper public health protocols are in place with workers coming from other jurisdictions”.
Speaking during a Dáil debate on the impact of Covid-19 on the agriculture and marine industries, the Fianna Fáil Carlow-based TD said that beef quotas were being cut weekly, a number of factories have been cut back to a three-day week but “in some cases, workers are being flown in because it is an essential service and this in the middle of a pandemic”.
She said that “Covid-19 does not know an essential worker from a holiday maker” and she asked “what steps are being taken to protect public health when permitting essential workers to arrive here?”
“Do they need to have had a negative test? Do they have to quarantine?”
The Minister insisted, however, that “my department has been working with public health and the Health and Safety Authority and there has been strong co-ordination in ensuring that the highest standards are in place.
“Any breaches of which will be taken very seriously. Anybody who comes across any such breaches should report these immediately,” he stressed.
The Minister insisted that “the processing sector recognises the priority objective of keeping staff safe, although that has been challenging throughout the pandemic because of the fact that they have had to keep operating”.
Ms Murnane O’Connor was among a number of TDs raising concerns about practices in meat-processing plants, which have been the subject of multiple large outbreaks of the virus.
Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy called for the €100 million in capital investment for meat plants to be conditional on how "meat factories treat their workers and the farmers who rely on them".
He said the national outbreak control team had recommended that legislation be enacted to allow Government to shut down meat-processing factories but “that public health advice has been disregarded”.
The control team also recommended that sampling be carried out at plants where there are outbreaks but only one pilot study had been done, he said.
Mr Carthy accused the Minister of refusing to release that study, citing commercial sensitivity “although we know the report has been shared with other meat factories”.
He added that since the new year, “there have been many new confirmed outbreaks at meat plants in several locations, which is again fuelling anxiety in local communities”.
“Despite this, the only new funding that will go directly into people’s pockets that the Minister has announced since January was €100 million in capital investment which will go directly to the meat-processing plants”.
Mr Carthy also questioned why meat factories “are not asked to carry out regular serial testing of workers as they enter the plants to allow individual cases to be traced and isolated”.
He said that “if this were done, everybody would win. The factories could continue their work without fear of outbreaks.”
Mr McConalogue stressed that the safety of employees from danger and the risk of infection was “absolutely paramount”.
This was essential in the meat and food-processing sectors in particular, he said, since they are designated as essential workers “and therefore have had to work throughout the pandemic”.