As the UK stumbles into a second Covid-19 lockdown, we continue to be concerned about the transmission of the virus in food processing.
It’s worth remembering that a common claim has been that cases in the sector have resulted from community transmission. In other words infections are taking place at home, but being identified at work.
This might make the situation in Watton in Norfolk a bit of a puzzle. According to a report in the Eastern Daily Press this week, Watton has recorded the highest Covid-19 infection rate anywhere in the country, with 1,515.5 cases per 100,000 people. Across the Breckland area, where Watton is located, there were 275 new coronavirus cases in the seven days to October 28, up from 132 the week before. These figures look particularly odd when you appreciate that North Norfolk has the lowest infection rate in the whole of England with 24.8 per 100,000 people.
The reason for the huge difference is that Watton is home to a Cranswick Country Foods site which has suffered a major outbreak. According to reports, out of all staff tested at the site around a third have come back positive for Covid-19, with the rate in the butchery section a little over 50%.
Given the very low rate of Covid-19 in the region as a whole, and the very high rate in the town and the site, it is not obvious that the virus is spreading from community to workplace. The question has now taken on a political edge with Labour politicians in Norfolk calling for regular testing of meat processing workers, comparable to the regime for care workers. They may be pushing at an open door. According to a report in the FT at the weekend, although testing will decrease from almost 2 million a day to closer to 1 million, it will become more targeted. Amongst the occupations prioritised for testing is food processing.
This points to the likely underlying reality – there is a problem with the spread of Covid-19 in the sector, but because of our need for food, and our taste for meat, there is a shared desire not to disrupt production. While worker safety (or the lack of it) has become more salient, the government and others have to consider the trade-offs.
And let’s not forget that the second wave may be more dangerous than the first. According to HSE data from Ireland published in AgriLand, the meat processing sector had a Covid-19 detection rate of 0.76% at the end of October; this is an increase on 0.46% during the first wave.
At the same time workers may feel reluctant to speak out. A disturbing report in Personnel Today reveals the extent to which whistle blowers are dismissed when they raise concerns about exposure to the virus. One-fifth of employees found themselves out of a job after making their fears known or asking too many questions. In one case, an employee at a meat processing plant was told not to wear a face mask at work and when he raised concerns about the lack of social distancing, he was dismissed.
As with everything to do with Covid-19, there are no pain-free, easy options. Maintaining normal levels of production in some sectors may risk increasing the spread, but a government already losing popular support is unlikely to want to undertake action that might jeapordise meat supplies.
So we trundle along, with weekly reports of Covid outbreaks at food processing sites involving hundreds of workers, and the government planning to target testing on the sector, but barely any cases reported as workplace infections under safety regulations.
It would not be unreasonable for food processing workers and their unions to push for improved pay and conditions, and for investors to support this. Their labour during the pandemic has come at a high price to their own health and safety.
PIRC’s briefing on Covid-19 and food processing is available here.