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Public health expert believes lack of transparency over meat factories’ Covid safety is damaging public trust

2 Sisters employees.
2 Sisters employees.

A public health expert has claimed the lack of transparency around the continued operation of meat factories during lockdown is damaging public trust.

Professor Andrew Watterson, of the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at Stirling University believes outbreaks suggest workplaces are not Covid-safe and questioned why detailed information was not being made public by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Professor Andrew Watterson

He wants the body to reveal what checks and standards are being met during investigations and questioned why information was only being relayed through public health.

Covid-19 cases at Coupar Angus chicken factory nearly double in five days

Professor Watterson told The Courier: “The lack of transparency means the public, who it is important to keep informed during the pandemic, don’t know what exactly is going on nor does anyone else outside a workplace.

“It may be that employers do all they should, that NHS Public Health in Scotland do all the checks that are needed, that HSE ensure workers are safe from Covid.

“But we simply don’t know that with the current lack of transparency and this damages trust so critical to good public health policy and practice.

“Also, the proof of the pudding is often in the eating and if the UK and Scottish Government say workplaces are Covid secure, why do clusters occur – irrelevant whether they occurred in the community or the workplace, if they spread in the workplace?

“Workplace clusters demonstrate these workplaces are not Covid-safe.

“Also, if you want to stop the new strain of Covid spreading, then a shut-down of non-essential industries for a couple of weeks would make very good sense.”

He was speaking amid — but not specifically about — a second Covid-19 outbreak at the 2 Sisters chicken factory in Coupar Angus, where more than 60 people have tested positive for the virus.

The 2 Sisters plant in Coupar Angus.

A Hogmanay party involving employees – away from the factory – is being blamed.

More than 200 cases were connected to the plant last year, resulting in the factory shutting down for two weeks.

The professor believes in settings like food processing plants, external and internal practices need to be taken into account – like the living conditions of employees and how they transport themselves to work.

Following a circuit-breaker type of shutdown, the researcher said health bosses will have to ask themselves if factory workers should be higher up the list of vaccine priorities.

“Getting large numbers of workers employed in confined and cold spaces like a chicken plant (vaccinated) may be critical.

“The meat industry is arguing the case for their workers to be vaccination priorities.

“There will probably be quite a debate about the ethics and wisdom of prioritising such groups for the vaccine because chicken is not an essential industry but many local jobs will depend on the plant.

“If vaccine supplies are limited, will this be the best use of vaccines?

“It may protect large numbers of workers in such plants but other workers  will not be protected in a vaccine shortage.”

HSE defended their input, saying they instructed public health who then took the lead on communications.

A spokesperson for the body said: “Where workplaces are not adequately controlling health and safety risks in relation to Covid-19, or there are deficiencies in the transmission risk control strategy HSE can require improvements to be made.

“HSE would be acting outside of the law if it used those powers to act on public health matters, which are outside the purpose of the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA).”

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