How Not to Handle a Covid-19 Outbreak: The Example of Greencore Food Group

Since the start of the pandemic Greencore as an employer has failed to take the safety of their employees seriously. Profits always seem to trump human life in the case of Greencore, otherwise known to their employees as Meancore. So, while Northamptonshire’s director of Public Health, Lucy Wightman, may have been impressed with the measures apparently taken by Greencore to make their Northampton site covid-safe, the workers have remained wholly unimpressed.

Let’s start at the beginning of Greencore’s latest outbreak fiasco. The first important date in Greencore’s enormous cock-up was July 27. As Lucy Wightman explained:

“We had 4 staff test positive on the 27th July, as I said this is not unusual, this is a huge manufacturer which employs within that site 2,100 staff, so these are very small numbers at that point, and that wouldn’t be a worry… We then found that there were a further 4 staff who tested positive, again after a social event, so that was two days later.”

Rather than close the factory, Greencore then sent dozens of their employees to get tested. On 4th August at Wightman’s “weekly outbreak meeting” with Greencore she recalled how “at that point we ended up realising that through various testing sites that we had 24 staff positives”.

Again rather than close the factory, Greencore simply arranged for a private company to come in and test all their manufacturing staff, that is, almost a week after Greencore identified they had at least 24 infections. Thus, with reported infections now rising by the day, the decision was taken for on-site testing of manufacturing staff to take place on three days (on 10, 11, and 12th August). As Wightman notes, unlike office-based staff who had been working from home…

“Clearly people in the production areas at Greencore aren’t able to work from home, and therefore we tested all of those that have been present over the period that we considered to be infectious and that was around nearly 1,300 employees who were tested. Just over 1,100 through a private company and then around 152 had gone through some kind of NHS testing portal between the 27th July and the 9th August. Obviously, it was some of those results that brought our attention to the challenge in Greencore itself.”

Notably “the total number of positives up until 13th August was 287,” which represented just over 1 in 5 of all staff who worked in the factory floor! Yet still the decision was taken to keep the factory open, with workers who had tested positive being sent home to self-isolate for 10 days – most being told that they would have to somehow pay their bills with an income of just £96 a week (statutory sick pay).

An important factor to highlight in this outbreak is that the vast majority of Greencore’s low-paid workforce are forced to save money on living expenses by house-sharing and car-sharing (to get to work), or if no cars are available they travel to work on the local public buses which throughout the pandemic have frequently been packed and offer no opportunities for safe social distancing. The workers’ trade union reps had previously raised these safety concerns with management but to no avail, as managers had come to the conclusion that how their employees travel to work should not be considered as part of any efforts to create a covid-secure workplace.

With the outbreak growing by the day, workers who had tested positive (most of them showing no outward symptoms) were then sent home to self-isolate, as were all Greencore employees residing in their households. But in implementing this process of self-isolation, Greencore did nothing to make sure that those individuals who travelled together to work in car shares with other infected individuals were informed that they too should self-isolate. Instead Greencore washed their hands of any efforts they could have taken to minimize the viruses spread and left the task of tracing who their employees had been in contact with in the hands of the government’s utterly useless contact-tracing program.

The obvious faults in the governments contact-tracing protocol were further revealed by a question asked of Wightman by a journalist on August 14, that is, 48 hours after the three days of on-site testing had been completed. The journalist asked:

“Do you know how many contacts, that is family and friends of the employees, have tested positive? Obviously the figure we have at the moment, the 292 is for the employees, do you know how many contacts have tested positive or how many are being tested?”

Wightman responded by making it clear that she had no idea how many contacts had been traced – I say this because she totally ignored responding to the main content of the question. Instead she said:

“As of next Wednesday [August 19] we will be undertaking our own contact-tracing and where the national [NHS] team obviously follow-up in the first 48 hours, because of the current situation we are now going to be getting data downloads for all of those cases that they have been unable to contact and follow-up. As obviously their [the NHS] process ceases after 48 hours. Because of the situation, because we understand the high likelihood of community transmission, we think it is imperative that we follow-up those people ourselves.”

But this was too little way too late. Nearly 300 people had already tested positive by August 12, and NHS contact-tracers would then have spent the next two days trying to do their job of contact-tracing. It therefore beggars’ belief that Wightman and her public health team chose to wait a further week before they started their own contact-tracing to fill in the apparent gaps left by the NHS contract tracers.

So on August 14 Wightman had acknowledged the “high likelihood of community transmission” but had remained happy to advise that the Greencore site should continue operating as normal. In many ways this is so bizarre it is hard to believe this happened, but of course it did.

Later, mainly as a result of the public campaigning undertaken by the Bakers Union, on August 21 Greencore’s Northampton site was forced to close, with all employees sent home to self-isolate for two weeks. Another factor that played an important role in the closure was the fact that Greencore had just started retesting all those staff members who had previously tested negative (as a so-called “precautionary measure”) and surprise, surprise, had started to discover that many of these staff were now infected. Although this retesting had still not been completed at the time of closure, by August 27 it was reported that of the 834 workers who had been re-tested, 37 were confirmed positive for covid-19.

But while the factory was temporarily closed between August 21 and August 26, it soon became public knowledge that certain staff like the security guards and those working in the dispatch unit had been kept on-site throughout the ‘closure’. This issue, as the Bakers Union pointed out, was particularly problematic as some of the staff who were kept at work had “previously been travelling in with production workers in the same cars, they have been sharing smoking areas, canteens. Some families even work together—husband in dispatch, wife in production.”

So, with staff who had gone into self-isolation prior to August 12 now allowed to return to work, it remains unclear whether they are returning to a site where covid-19 is still present and spreading. The only way to have confirmed this before the reopening would have been to make such all the dispatch and security staff had been tested the day before manufacturing had resumed – something that sadly did not happen.

Greencore covid patrick coveney

In an attempt to respond to the Bakers Unions (correct) accusation that workers are now being exposed to unnecessary dangers yesterday (August 28) Greencore uploaded a series of answers to “frequently asked questions” that was meant to make their employees feel better. Instead, the company’s vague and contradictory ANSWERS should raise even more concerns amongst workers and the local community. So, for instance, if a worker tested positive for covid-19 and asks the following question:

“Do my family members or people I share a house with have to isolate as well?”

Greencore’s answer is:

“Yes, unless you are part of a small exemption list agreed with the management team and have a letter of authorisation to continue to work.”

Apparently the company are saying that they have created an exemption list of workers who are apparently unable to transmit covid-19 in the workplace. This miracle surely needs more explanation!

faq

Another question that is equally confusing deals with a scenario whereby a worker who had undergone a period of self-isolation — perhaps because they live in the same household as another worker who tested positive – and then ended up returning to work in the days prior to the closure. The question asks:

“I completed my period of self-isolation and returned to work between 19th August and 21st August 2020, do I need to complete a further period of isolation?”

Greencore’s answer is that…

“If…you are showing no symptoms… you do not need to re-isolate. You can return to work once contacted by a member of the site team.”

This again makes no sense. Allowing workers who were on site just prior to the site ‘closure’ to return to work immediately without any period of self-isolation totally undermines the purpose the closure. The guidance should be that if you were in work between 19th August and 21st August then you should self-isolate like everyone else (for a further two weeks)!

From start to finish, Greencore and the local public health authorities involved have been totally incompetent. They have taken completely unnecessary risks with the lives of thousands of key workers and only after a massive campaign by the Bakers Union were Greencore’s greedy bosses forced to pay their key workers 80% of their normal salary during any periods that workers had to self-isolate. While obviously such pay is a step-up from statutory sick pay, in reality this offer still represents a pay-cut which is why the union is still demanding full pay for all workers during any periods of self-isolation. This is not an unpopular demand, and an online petition that was launched just days ago has already obtained the signatories of just short of 25,000 people – so if you agree then please share it from here https://actions.sumofus.org/a/ms-covid-scandal

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