Unite has called for “significant intervention” from both Government and employers to prevent COVID-19 spreading at meat processing factories.
The Government is considering reducing the social distancing rule to one metre to help with the reopening of the hospitality sector.
Unite has already said it thinks more Coronavirus cases are “likely” and said it has suspected cases at more than five plants.
Last week, 2 Sisters Food Group suspended production at its chicken plant in Llangefni, Wales, following multiple cases of coronavirus there. It has now been confirmed that there are 175 cases at the plant.
Asda has shut down operations at its meat processing site in Kirklees after members of staff were suspected of having contracted COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Moy Park has invested £4M in safety and supportive measures to protect its staff.
Unite said that the prevalence of coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories made it incumbent on ministers and employers to ensure that workers who need to self-isolate can be either paid under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) or have their rates of company sick pay increased.
It added that it believed many employers were “barely” taking notice of the two-metre social distancing rule.
Unite national officer Bev Clarkson said: “Any downgrade for the meat industry in the current environment will simply give irresponsible bosses the excuse they need to do away with social distancing entirely. Put simply, it will risk more outbreaks at factories across the country.
“Before any new measures are enacted, ministers and employers need to get to grips with the spate of outbreaks that have occurred under the present two-metre rule. As well as more stringent health and safety regimes in factories, systems for testing and contact-tracing within the industry need to be improved.”
Responding to the news of coronavirus cluster cases at meat plants, British Meat Processors Association chief executive Nick Allen said its members had been meeting guidelines and it was consulting with Public Health England about the latest cases.
“Throughout the crisis we have taken and endeavoured to implement all Government guidance, and this has enabled the industry to keep the food supply chain working and the nation fed,” he said.
“It must be considered that food factories have been open and working throughout this crisis and, as a result, workers travel to and from work as well as working alongside people, albeit with precautions in place. It must be the case that this, in itself, increases the risk of exposure and, as we see more places of work reopen, the Government has acknowledged that the risk increases of contracting the virus, although the risk is hopefully diminished by taking the recommended precautions.”