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Why are there so many coronavirus outbreaks at factories like Banham Poultry?

PUBLISHED: 11:40 25 August 2020 | UPDATED: 10:36 27 August 2020

Seven workers at Banham Poultry in Attleborough have tested positive for coronavirus. Picture: Denise Bradley

Seven workers at Banham Poultry in Attleborough have tested positive for coronavirus. Picture: Denise Bradley

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The Covid-19 outbreak at Banham Poultry is one of many to hit meat processing factories across the world – so what makes these workplaces so vulnerable to the virus?

Banham Poultry at Attleborough which has seen an outbreak of coronavirus. Picture: Denise BradleyBanham Poultry at Attleborough which has seen an outbreak of coronavirus. Picture: Denise Bradley

Seven workers at the plant in Attleborough have tested positive for the virus, with a further five also self-isolating while they await test results.

It is the latest in a string of similar outbreaks, including one at the 2 Sisters poultry factory at Coupar Angus in Scotland, which has been linked to more than 100 positive Covid-19 cases, and one at the same firm’s site at Anglesey in Wales, which led to more than 220 confirmed cases in June. There have also been major outbreaks in Germany, France, Spain and the US.

The potential for meat processing factories to spark such major outbreaks is a particular concern in East Anglia, which is one of the most important poultry and pork producing areas in the country.

Health officials said – although there is no conclusive evidence – the cold and damp refrigerated working environments could create ideal conditions for coronavirus to linger and spread, while it can be difficult to keep workers two metres apart when they are working on fast-moving production lines which are essential to the UK’s food production.

Dr Louise Smith, Norfolk's director of public health. Picture: Norfolk County CouncilDr Louise Smith, Norfolk's director of public health. Picture: Norfolk County Council

Dr Louise Smith, director of public health for Norfolk, said: “There is speculation, but we are not 100pc sure. One of the key issues is that these kinds of factories that are producing our food supply have stayed open all the way through the outbreak, because we need to keep producing food, so there has been a higher risk simply because they have not been able to close down and distance like other places.

“It is possible that there is also something about the way that the environment works – if they are damper environments, or if they are cold. But we don’t fully have the evidence of that yet.”

READ MORE: Norfolk public health director warns of further coronavirus cases after Banham Poultry outbreak

There is no evidence that the meat products themselves could be a source of Covid-19 infection at the plants. The Food Standards Agency said it was very unlikely that coronavirus can be caught from food.

Banham Poultry bosses said the firm had “invested in a range of procedures and protective equipment to keep our staff as safe as possible”, and Dr Smith said the firm’s management team had acted quickly to help prevent the spread of the virus and is working closely with health officials to carry out more precautionary tests and trace the contacts of those staff who have tested positive.

WHAT IS BEING DONE TO PROTECT WORKERS?

The government has issued guidelines on working safely in food manufacturing factories – including keeping workers at least two metres apart when possible.

But where the 2m social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full, and the activity cannot be redesigned and is considered necessary for the business to operate, it says businesses must take all possible mitigating actions to reduce the risk of transmission between staff. They include:

• Increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning.

• Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other.

• Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible.

• Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using fixed teams or partnering, so each person works with only a few others.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) said the industry it represents is “doing everything possible to minimise the risk to key workers who have kept the country fed” during the Covid-19 crisis, and criticised the “unfair portrayal of meat processing plants as virus epicentres”.

In response to previous outbreaks, BPC chief executive Richard Griffiths said: “British poultry meat businesses are doing all they can to safeguard their employees and maintain high standards of production from farm to fork. The industry has acted responsibly and invested in the necessary infrastructure and practices to implement appropriate social distancing measures as per government guidelines.

“Where the production environment makes it impossible to observe the 2m distancing requirement, our businesses have adapted quickly by bringing in bespoke solutions such as enhanced PPE, mandatory face coverings, Perspex screens and managing flow of traffic through staggering shifts and breaks. This has played a vital role in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our key workers.”


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