A Northampton sandwich factory where almost 300 workers have caught Covid-19 is still open – despite warnings of a local lockdown.
Greencore, which supplies M&S, said production is ‘continuing as usual’ at the plant and said it had no concerns about any of its products.
Some 292 employees at the factory on Northampton’s Moulton Park Industrial Estate have tested positive for the disease and are self-isolating.
But local health chiefs fear further testing will find up to 100 more cases, with results from around 400 staff yet to come back.
Lucy Wightman, Northamptonshire County Council’s director of public health, said 1,300 of the 2,100-strong workforce had already been swabbed for the virus.
The firm, thought to be the world’s largest maker of sandwiches, took the decision to proactively test workers as a result of a rise in cases in the town.
There were 85 new cases diagnosed there last week, up from 66 in the week before. And Northampton is one of 29 places on Public Health England’s watchlist.
Northampton is listed as a ‘concern’ by PHE, which today published a list of 29 areas that have worrying levels of coronavirus.
As a result of Northampton’s status, Greencore said it was testing staff itself rather than waiting for them to get NHS tests.
The first four cases were identified on 28 July, with a further nine cases on 3 August leading Public Health Northamptonshire to ask workers to get tested.
Local health chiefs said 79 people tested positive on the NHS, which led to Greencore beginning mass testing privately.
A further 213 were spotted through Greencore’s swabbing scheme.
In a statement yesterday, Greencore said: ‘As a result of the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the Northampton area, we took the decision to start proactively testing all of the colleagues at our Northampton site.
‘We can confirm that a number of colleagues have tested positive for the virus and are now self-isolating.
‘We are liaising closely with PHE East Midlands, Northamptonshire County Council and Northampton Borough Council, who are fully supportive of the controls that we have on site.
But Greencore said production at the plant was ‘continuing as usual’ and it had no concerns about its products, according to the BBC.
Ms Wightman said: ‘It is evident that Greencore has highly effective measures in place and they continue to work extremely hard to exceed the requirements needed to be Covid-19 secure within the workplace.’
The company confirmed to MailOnline it was still operating on the basis that Covid-19 does not spread via food packaging. It did not comment on the spread of the virus among staff or in the county.
A spokesperson said: ‘All of Greencore’s sites have wide-ranging social-distancing measures, stringent hygiene procedures and regular temperature checking in place, and we are doing everything that we can to keep our people safe.
‘As ever, the health and well-being of our colleagues is our number one priority.’
The Food Standards Agency says it is ‘clear that it remains very unlikely that people can catch Covid-19 from food. Covid-19 is a respiratory illness and not known to be transmitted by exposure to food or food packaging’.
The website said Greencore’s sites have wide-ranging social-distancing measures, stringent hygiene procedures and regular temperature checking in place.
Food factories have hosted an unusually high number of Covid-19 outbreaks around the world and experts say the cold, sunless environments, cramped working conditions and staff who are more likely to use public transport may be ideal for the virus to spread.
The company said yesterday: ‘In each case we have immediately conducted contact tracing and instructed potentially affected colleagues to self-isolate.
‘As ever, the health and wellbeing of our colleagues is our number one priority.’
It added: ‘Northampton borough has been experiencing a high number of cases over the last four weeks and residents and employees have been asked to “act now” to follow additional measures, to avoid a local lockdown or further government intervention.’
The worst affected areas of England — mostly in the North West and including Leicester — are in an ‘intervention’ category and have their own lockdown rules that are stricter than the rest of the country.
Northampton is not at this level yet — it has an infection rate of 29.8 new cases per 100,000 people each week, according to the most recent data.
This compares to a rate of 80 cases per 100,000 in the worst-affected part of the country, Blackburn.
But with a sudden increase of 300 cases in the area, it will take the infection rate high – which won’t be seen in the data immediately.
Ms Wightman said: ‘Public Health England Midlands have been providing support to colleagues at Greencore in managing the outbreak.
‘This has been supplemented by support from the local infection prevention and control team and Northampton Borough Council’s environmental health colleagues.’
She added: ‘It is evident that Greencore has highly effective measures in place and they continue to work extremely hard to exceed the requirements needed to be Covid-19 secure within the workplace.’
The county’s director of public health revealed there are currently 20 different Covid-19 outbreaks in the county, Chronicle & Echo reported.
Twelve are in care home settings, there are three hospital outbreaks and the rest are in workplaces.
Ms Wightman noted there was a link between the contagion spread and deprivation levels as well as car sharing.
Local lockdowns have not been imposed on all of the areas. Leicester, Blackburn, Preston and Aberdeen are under strict rules, along with a wider area around Greater Manchester and Lancashire where rules are tighter than they are elsewhere in the country.