‘Meat plant cluster lessons must be learned…or risk of second wave looms’

The country faces the risk of a second wave of Covid-19 if lessons are not learned from the “mistakes” made in meat plants and nursing homes, independent TD Denis Naughten has warned.

The TD was speaking ahead of a Dáil session later today, Thursday, May 21, in which three ministers – Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed, Minister for Health Simon Harris and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys – will field questions regarding Covid-19 clusters in meat plants.

Outlining that he believes there has been a “systematic failure” resulting in more than 800 staff contracting Covid-19 in the meat processing sector, deputy Naughten said:

“I firmly believe that, if we do not learn from the mistakes made in our nursing homes and in our meat plants, then we risk a second wave of Covid-19 infection – which will be disastrous for the health of our people and our economic recovery.

“This is now resulting in a jump of Covid-19 cases in communities which had very few positive cases to date, and this is undermining the great efforts made to date by every citizen in the state to stop the spread of this virus,” the TD for Roscommon-Galway said.

It is just not good enough that we had to wait 50 days after the first infections in meat plants for the HSE [Health Service Executive] to issue a comprehensive set of guidelines for the industry, even though the problems within plants were evident.

“We need to know why, after screening all staff, employees remained in work pending the issuing of results, which in some cases took over two and a half weeks to return – and why it took up to 10 days after testing before multidisciplinary teams went into meat plants with interpreters to explain to staff the measures they needed to take to minimise infection.”

Deputy Naughten stressed that the minister for health needs to provide Dáil Éireann with the numbers of meat plant employees who availed of the state’s isolation facilities, currently available in City West, “because it would have been impossible for them to effectively self-isolate in their current accommodation”.

“We also need confirmation from Minister Harris that all these employees’ close contacts on the meat plant floor, travelling companions and colleagues who they resided with, did not return to work during the required 14 days after they were informed of the positive test result.

“Sadly, I have received anecdotal evidence that this did not in fact happen.

And, while I have received reports of Health and Safety Authority (HSA) inspectors being less than helpful this week when calling to small businesses doing their best to manage under very changed trading conditions, these same inspectors conveniently failed to inspect a single meat plant over the last 50 days.

Continuing, deputy Naughten said:

“The Minister for Agriculture needs to inform Dáil Éireann if any of his 250 veterinary and technical staff involved in supervising and regulating the operations of the 56 slaughter plants had raised concerns about their operation under Covid-19 restrictions.”

The TD called on the minister to provide reassurance that such staff are satisfied that all plants are complying with the HSE guidelines for the industry.

It seems bizarre that, while the HSA had received complaints on the operation of meat plants that it seemed to sit on, the Department of Agriculture had not received a single complaint via its staff who have direct responsibility for ensuring that we maintained processing capacity throughout this pandemic.

“Today’s questioning in Dáil Éireann is not about attributing blame, but about learning from the mistakes made in the nursing home sector and the meat processing sector to ensure they are not repeated in other communities throughout the country and protecting against a second wave of Covid-19 infection,” deputy Naughten concluded.