On a normal day, there would be a steady stream of workers coming and going at the Greencore factory in Northampton that makes sandwiches for Marks and Spencer. But last Friday, the workplace announced it would close that afternoon and employees were told to stay in self-isolation for 14 days due to an outbreak of Covid-19. A week earlier it was confirmed that almost 300 members of staff had tested positive for the virus. Since then, there has been a feeling among many of the workers that they are being blamed for the outbreak.
The Director of Public Health at Northamptonshire County Council, Lucy Wightman, said that the outbreak was "about how people behave outside of Greencore, not at work" and that the company "continue to work extremely hard to exceed the requirements needed to be COVID-19 secure within the workplace". For those who had been risking their health to turn up for work every day, this felt like a kick in the teeth.
"Many workers were very angry about this," one employee told Open Democracy. "It was like she had decided to side with Greencore. In my opinion, the company was far too slow to act. People were terrified every time they turned up for work."
Another member of staff was equally angry about how the situation had been handled. "We are told they have effective measures in place so why were staff often not having their temperature checked until several hours into a shift? What good is that if you have already been working alongside other people all morning?"
Greencore says that all of its sites have wide-ranging social-distancing measures, stringent hygiene procedures and regular temperature checking in place, and that it is doing everything it can to keep people safe.
In a joint statement from Northampton Borough Council and Public Health Northamptonshire, the sharing of cars and housing were identified as risk factors in the spread of the virus. Obviously, there are few people who can suddenly change their living arrangements and for many, car-sharing is seen as the safest or only way to get to work.
"There are only two bus services that workers can use," one employee said. "One of those takes over an hour so everybody tries to get on the other one. When you have a whole shift of workers coming out of the factory and queuing for one bus how can that be safe? Now, many taxi drivers are also refusing to pick us up from the factory because they are scared of catching it so we don't have many options."
To the surprise of union officials at the site, some workers have this week been told to return to work as two production lines are being restarted as early as tomorrow. This is despite an announcement by the company last Friday that stated that it would "temporarily cease production" at the facility and that the decision would "allow all remaining colleagues at the site to self-isolate". Greencore says that only workers who have finished the 14 day self-isolation have been called back into work but staff tell a different story.
"It's crazy, we have received numerous calls from our members to say they are just four or five days into their self-isolation period and they are already returning to work," a union representative told Open Democracy.
Another employee said he was worried that he would lose pay if he refused to go into work this week. When he asked for clarification, he says he was simply told that he was "required to work tomorrow."
A Greencore spokesperson said, "We can confirm that colleagues who have completed their self-isolation periods are beginning to return to the site, and that production is therefore gradually restarting. The site has been deep-cleaned, and the process of restarting production is of course being carried out in close consultation with the Department of Health & Social Care, Public Health England and other government bodies."
This evening the BBC has also reported concerns amongst dispatch workers at the site, who it has emerged have remained working throughout the closure, though the company points out this was with the permission of local health officials.
Greencore isn't the only food factory to face a COVID outbreak. In June, 450 workers at two meat plants in Wales tested positive for the virus and last week an outbreak was reported among 35 workers at a pig meat processing plant in Northern Ireland. But the problem is wider than food factories alone. The latest figures from Public Health England show the "workplace" as the second highest setting for COVID-19 incidents, with care homes topping the list.
The Hazards Campaign, a network of health and safety campaigners and activists, has warned of an "explosion" in workplace outbreaks and has accused the UK government of ignoring the dangers of rushing people back to work. The group points to a recent report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control which looks at clusters and outbreaks in occupational settings in the EU/EEA and the UK. It found that of the 17 countries that responded to their survey, data showed that after health and care settings, most clusters were found in food processing-related settings and other factories or manufacturing facilities. The report highlights that these occupations are "commonly linked to socio-economic status which can also affect the individual's risk" in relation to COVID.
Back in Northampton, a petition has been started calling on Greencore to pay all self-isolating workers 100% of their pay. This comes after reports that employees at the factory who were previously self-isolating have been forced to use food banks. The Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council has also confirmed that it is supporting a small number of workers from the site with supermarket vouchers.
Greencore says that in recognition of the issues around Statutory Sick Pay, "all colleagues who have been required to self-isolate during the months of August and September at our Northampton site and are contractually on Statutory Sick Pay will now receive 80% of their basic pay… In addition, all weekly paid colleagues at the site will receive an additional payment of £400. This is a bonus that would normally be paid based on attendance at the end of the year, but we have decided to waive the usual criteria and give it to all weekly paid colleagues now regardless of their attendance record. This follows on from a recent bonus which averaged £260 per colleague and was paid to all weekly paid front-line staff in order to recognise their huge contribution while lockdown was in place.”
"We are reassured to note that Public Health England has recently reiterated its assessment that we have “highly effective measures in place” and that we “continue to work extremely hard to exceed the requirements needed to be COVID-19 secure within the workplace," a spokesperson said.