Over the last week, two COVID-19 outbreaks have been declared centred around meat and food processing sites in Wales. These declarations follow a UK and worldwide pattern during the current global pandemic of the meat and food processing sector being susceptible to COVID-19, which has resulted in local hotspots.
Whilst all necessary action is being taken to control and prevent the spread of the virus from person to person, I would like to emphasise that there is no evidence that coronavirus survives in food.
Cases of coronavirus are generally continuing to fall across Wales – we have seen fewer than 100 cases each day in the first few weeks of June. However we can expect to see some increases in cases as a result of these outbreaks. These outbreaks show that we all need to continue to take coronavirus very seriously – it has not gone away.
Public Health Wales is chairing daily Outbreak Control Teams and is working in partnership with the employers, local authorities, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and Health Boards to ensure all necessary public health action is taken. The declared outbreaks are being managed in line with our tried and tested Communicable Disease Outbreak Plan for Wales.
The first outbreak is centred on the 2 Sisters plant in Llangefni, in Anglesey. So far there are 200 confirmed cases and the majority are staff members at the plant. Some are household contacts. More than 450 tests have been taken. 89 people are still to be tested and these are being actively followed up. The factory has been closed by the employer and will only re-open once effective controls have been put in place. All contacts of cases are being followed up and tested and all cases and contacts are self-isolating.
The second outbreak is centred on the Rowan Foods plant in Wrexham. So far there are 97 confirmed cases and over 1,000 tests have been taken. The factory remains operational. A site visit will take place later this week. All contacts of cases are being followed up and tested and all cases and contacts are self-isolating
All cases directly linked to people working in these factories have been identified through our Test, Trace, Protect system. I am very grateful to our local and regional TTP teams across the country who are working to Keep Wales Safe.
There is also an incident centred on the Kepak Food Group plant in Merthyr Tydfil which is currently being investigated. 33 cases have potentially occurred in workers at the plant since April but only a small number of these have occurred since June. Investigations are continuing and an outbreak has not been declared. Further detail on the timings of infections as well as a site inspection will inform us whether transmission occurred at the site or part of the wider community. A further Incident Management Team meeting chaired by Public Health Wales and involving all key partners is due to take place on Friday.
The law in Wales says workplaces must take all reasonable measures to comply with the 2m physical distancing duty to protect people working and visiting premises from coronavirus. Compliance with this has been generally good and there are some very good examples around Wales.
However, we also know coronaviruses thrives in cold, damp environments and it survives for longer indoors and particularly on smooth surfaces – a particular challenge for the meat processing sector. We also know that many people employed in this sector are on basic minimum wage and levels of statutory sick pay mean many people feel they have no choice but to carry on working when they are ill.
Earlier this week, I met unions representing the workforce at the two North Wales plants and agreed a set of wider actions, focusing on workforce wellbeing. A meeting will be held later this week with the sector, unions and employers to discuss worker benefits.
We will also develop wider guidance for the sector, working with Public Health Wales and other agencies, including the Food Standards Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. This wider plan will cover:
- Mapping and risk assessing meat and food processing industry in Wales and selected visits to premises
- Workforce measures
- Regulatory and legal actions including enforcement
- Communications to industry sector including need for further guidance
- Communications to public
We are keeping these outbreaks and incidents under very close observation and management and all necessary action to protect the public is and will continue to be taken.