A meat processing plant in Cullybackey is to temporarily close following the discovery of a cluster of Covid-19 cases amongst workers.
Cranswick, which processes pigs, will shut for a deep clean and for the testing of staff.
The company briefed its workers on Thursday afternoon, with the closure taking effect from 6pm on Saturday.
A cluster is defined as two or more cases.
A company spokesman declined to confirm how many of its 500 staff were involved in the current outbreak but said staff welfare was the primary concern.
“There has been a recent increase in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Ballymena and the wider region and this has been acknowledged as a community issue.
“As a result of this, we can confirm that a number of colleagues at our Ballymena site have tested positive for Covid-19.
“Working with the Public Health Authority (PHA), we have taken the decision to send all of our colleagues for testing. If the test results are positive, the individual will be required to self-isolate for 10 days; if the test results are negative, the individual will be required to self-isolate for 14 days.
“Therefore, the site will need to temporarily suspend production.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said as of Wednesday evening there had been “35 cases” within staff and a further “smaller number of positive cases with contacts”.
He added: “The outbreak is so significant and so extensive that all the workers in the factory and all recent visitors to the factory should now be required to self-isolate and as a matter of priority all staff are to be tested in the coming hours and days and the plant will undergo a full deep clean during the period of closure.”
Mr Swann, who is an Assembly Member for North Antrim, added: “Whilst this development may cause some concern I would stress that it is by no means unique. There have been outbreaks in similar facilities in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland.
“The Public Health Agency are on the ground and they will continue to offer and provide all relevant supports to the staff and local community.”
The Public Health Agency said it had made a “number of significant recommendations” to a business in the Mid and East Antrim Council area.
“These include the testing of all staff this week and self-isolation of staff identified as close contacts of cases.”
It said testing and tracing was being carried out to identify staff who might potentially be affected to help prevent further community transmission.
It said it would not comment on individual cases to prevent people with the disease being identified or to deter others from coming forward.
There has been a recent spike in community cases in the Mid and East Antrim Council area with 80 new positive cases in the past seven days.
Cranswick will be the first meat company to close in Northern Ireland during the Covid pandemic, but not the first to have cases amongst its workforce.
A number have shut in the Republic of Ireland and across Europe in recent months following Covid clusters.
Conditions in meat plants are believed to lend themselves to disease transmission.
Cool temperatures and people working in close proximity on noisy production lines can facilitate it.
The fact that some meat plant staff tend to live or travel together can also be a factor.
But processors have spent considerable sums putting measures in place to try and mitigate the risk.
These include personal protection equipment for workers, screens to separate work stations on production lines and staggered shift times.
There were some protests at Northern Ireland meat plants at the start of the pandemic as workers complained about some companies’ response to their safety concerns.
It prompted fresh guidance for food processing companies.
The Health and Safety Executive said it had carried out 41 inspections of meat plants in Northern Ireland between 28 April and 17 August.
Cranswick would process in excess of 10,000 pigs a week at its Cullybackey plant.
It’s understood discussions are under way with other firms to take those animals which the situation is resolved, the BBC reports.
North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley said he was concerned about the impact of the closure on the agri-food industry.
He said the company had behaved responsibly but added: “We cannot have a situation where Covid prevents factory production that ultimately damages the NI agri-food sector. That would be catastrophic.”
On Friday, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, who is also a North Antrim MLA, said: “Cranswick in closing has selflessly met the need of the moment, but it must be said that in addition, before reaching this point, the company, in my view, made sterling efforts to deal with the situation.
“Sadly, despite best efforts it was not enough and now loss to the farming community and the business is resulting.
“It is quite unfair to paint this company as the problem when Covid-19 is a community wide scourge and has been spread by the irresponsibility of many in the ways in which they show no regard for their own safety or that of others.
“The resulting crisis for the company’s farming customers is immense, with no outlet for their pigs over the coming weeks. This will create animal welfare problems and significant financial loss as overweight pigs fall drastically in value. The DAERA minister needs to urgently address this issue.”
- Statements can be sent to email@example.com