In a written response to the news of a second death, Bakkavor said it was implementing an on-site testing programme to begin on 7 December and ending at midnight on 8 December.: "At our Tilmanstone site, out of a workforce of over 900 people, we currently have 59 colleagues off work that have tested positive for COVID-19 and an additional 54 who are self-isolating as a precautionary measure."
"We have sadly had two colleagues pass away following positive tests for COVID-19. These were valued members of our team and we are doing everything to support their families during this tragic time. At this early point in our investigation there is no evidence that either case was contracted in the workplace."
The company said it had consistently followed official food processing guidelines throughout the pandemic: "As a business, we have fully followed PHE guidelines for the duration of the pandemic.
"We are currently working closely with PHE South East and Kent County Council to monitor the situation and we will take whatever appropriate action is necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure that our staff on site are safe. We will follow PHE advice and, if and when further steps need to be taken, we will communicate any new developments.
'Wellbeing of our people of paramount importance'
"The wellbeing of our people in the workplace is of paramount importance to us and we have worked hard throughout the pandemic to help maintain food supply to the nation at a critical time, while looking after the safety of our colleagues."
Referring to the testing programme, Bakkavor stated: "Following discussions with PHE South East and Kent County Council over the last week, we are commencing an on-site testing programme for all staff, which will begin at 9am on Monday 7 December and end at midnight on 8 December 2020.
"With Kent now in Tier 3 lockdown, to relieve the difficulty and pressure of large-scale testing on Kent County Council, we have proactively volunteered to employ the services of a specialist independent company to carry out the testing, which will also enable us to fast-track the process and results.
"This has been welcomed and supported by PHE South East and Kent County Council. Independent clinicians will be carrying out the tests with a consistency and pace that would not have been possible had all colleagues been issued self-testing kits.
Voluntary testing programme
Legally, this is a voluntary testing programme and it is not compulsory for colleagues to take the test if they do not wish to do so, however, we will be encouraging our colleagues to be tested so that we can support PHE in the control of the virus."
The business said it would be bringing in enhanced pay for COVID-19-related absences with immediate effect.
"All employees will receive their contractual salary for any COVID-19-related absence for a minimum period of 14 days. This includes absence due to COVID-19 symptoms confirmed by a positive test or any absence due to self-isolation resulting from close contact identified through our internal track and trace or through NHS Test & Trace.
"All employees remain entitled to company sick pay in line with their contract of employment and, as always, discretion is applied where appropriate. This enhanced arrangement will be reviewed after eight weeks."
Occupational Health guidelines
In line with local risk assessments and Occupational Health guidelines, employees identified as vulnerable who cannot currently be in the workplace were being furloughed or were working from home, the business said.
The Health & Safety Executive was visiting the Tilmanstone site next week to view Bakkavor's COVID-19 management controls and approach, it said.
In the meantime, the site continues to operate at reduced capacity and was working collaboratively with Marks and Spencer to ensure staff safety at all times. "We welcome constructive discussion with the Tilmanstone site union, engage in regular dialogue and have kept our union representative up to date with all developments to date," stated Bakkavor. "Continuing production at the site is in the best interest of our colleagues, customers and the wider economy."
The GMB trade union has called for Bakkavor to offer full pay to anyone taking COVID-19-related absence, mass testing for staff and to close the factory to perform a deep clean.
'Seen virus sweep through factory'
GMB organiser Frank Macklin said on 3 December: "Sadly a second worker had died in a COVID-19 related fatality. GMB's thoughts and sympathies are with their family and loved ones. Bakkavor Tilmanstone Salads had only experienced a few positive cases of COVID-19 before November, but we have now seen the virus sweep through the factory at an alarming rate in just over four weeks.
“GMB has already requested the factory close to allow mass testing of employees and a deep clean of its factory. The company has enlisted an independent company to clean the facility – but the process only took a few hours and the factory remained open. This is clearly not good enough.
“GMB has lodged a formal collective grievance on behalf of our members, as we believe the health and safety of our members has been seriously compromised at the factory.”