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MP backs calls for COVID-19 inquiry on meat factories in Kirklees

It follows a coronavirus outbreak in June at the Kober Ltd meat factory in Hunsworth, near Cleckheaton.

Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin has urged the Government to ensure local councils have the cash available to fight Covid and tackle localised outbreaks.

And she has joined her Labour colleague Barry Sheerman in calling for an urgent investigation into outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat processing plants in England.

The Shadow Environment Secretary, Luke Pollard, has written to Environment Secretary George Eustice asking for a rapid review of food businesses vulnerable to the virus as well as guidance, such as social distancing and wearing PPE.

His intervention comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said local lockdowns can be used to control Covid-19 in future – and hailed the work done so far in Kirklees and Bradford to contain spikes.

Following a coronavirus outbreak in June at the Kober Ltd meat factory in Hunsworth, near Cleckheaton, Huddersfield MP Mr Sheerman demanded an investigation into English processing plants.

He was also deeply critical of Kirklees Council’s “secretive” handling of the outbreak and called for transparency over how many Kober workers had refused to be tested.

The Kober plant is in Ms Brabin’s constituency.

In supporting Mr Pollard’s letter, Ms Brabin – who raised the need for an investigation with the prime minister last month – paid tribute to the work of the council.

She said budget cuts to the Health and Safety Executive as well as the financial impact of Covid-19 and localised outbreaks, had impacted on local authorities and businesses.

She commented: “With the Health and Safety Executive having its budget cut by 50% since 2010, the Government must ensure that Kirklees and other councils have the money they need to keep our communities safe.

“Kirklees Council is being brilliant.

“It is testing workforces and closing operations, but there is a cost to that, which is not only to the council but also the businesses and the workers put on statutory sick pay.”

Following two further coronavirus outbreaks at bed factories in Batley and Liversedge the council has rolled out extra testing in the north of the borough.

Mobile testing units (MTUs) are currently operating in Dewsbury and Batley.

But health chiefs have said they are prepared to move MTUs, or expand their usefurther, to react accordingly.

Rachel Spencer-Henshall, the council’s Strategic Director for Public Health, said local data showed that rates of infection had dropped in Kirklees over the last seven days.

She added: “This is of course good news but not a reason to become complacent – our fight against Covid-19 is not over.

“We are very likely to see infection rates go up and down in communities and pockets in different parts of Kirklees in the coming weeks and months.

 

“We’re ready to deploy staff and testing units anywhere in Kirklees if we think it will help bring rates down.”

What Government data says:

During the pandemic, 494.4 people per 100,000 residents have tested positive for the virus.

27.8 people per 100,000 residents tested positive in Kirklees in the past week – a drop from 34.4 people per 100,000 residents the previous week.

The current national rate is 6.7. The current West Yorkshire average rate is 21.6.

In his letter Mr Pollard asks four key questions:

Will you follow the lead of the Welsh Government and order a rapid review and risk assessment of food businesses that may be vulnerable to Covid-19?

Will you conduct an urgent review of the guidance and protocols – including concerning distancing and the use of PPE both at the production line and on breaks – issued to food businesses in England?

Will you ask the Food Standards Agency and Health and Safety Executive to urgently inspect working conditions in all food businesses operating within a chilled environment?

What assessment have you made of the adequacy of statutory sick pay to enable food company key workers to afford to self isolate if they have Covid-19 symptoms, or if they are informed by NHS Track and Trace that they have been in contact with someone with symptoms? Has that assessment been given to the Department for Work and Pensions?

Mr Pollard said: “There are thousands of people working in chilled and moist workplaces like meat packing factories throughout the country.

“The large number of Covid-19 outbreaks should have prompted a stronger response from the Government to understand why these plants are most affected and what can be done to slow the spread of the virus in food factories.

“We are calling on the Government to launch a proper investigation into the causes of these outbreaks.

“As attention turns to preventing a second peak, we need ministers to learn lessons and share those openly and transparently with the public so future outbreaks can be prevented.

“Keeping quiet will not make the problem go away.”

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