A Co. Antrim pork processing plant has been forced to close amid report of a 'cluster' of Covid-19 cases.

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann described the outbreak at Cranswick's Ballymena plant as "significant and difficult". As a result, he said, all workers at the plant would be required to isolate.

Today (August 20), a further 51 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Northern Ireland. However, it's not known how many of the cases relate to the meat plant.

"R0 is likely to be around 1.3 and is definitely above 1," Minister Swann stated in today's media briefing.

'All workers will be required to isolate'

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann said: "There has been a substantial increase in numbers in the Mid and East Antrim area.

"Recently, my department and the Public Health Agency, supported by colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and the Health and Safety Executive have been dealing with a significant and difficult outbreak in the same council area.

As of yesterday evening, there had been 35 cases identified within staff, and a further smaller number of positive cases with contacts.

"So, supported by advice from the PHA and chief medical officer, 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.

"This, in effect, will see the closure of the factory, and as a matter of priority, all staff are required to be tested in the coming hours and days."

Minister Swann said the plant would be "deep cleaned" while it is closed.

"While this development may cause some concern, I would stress that it is by no means unique. There have been outbreaks at similar facilities in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland," he continued.

Workers seek assurances

Trade union Unite said it is seeking assurances that workers sent home to self-isolate will not suffer any loss of pay.

Unite regional officer Liam Gallagher said: “The meat processing sector has been a vector of Covid-19 transmission in Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland and internationally.

"This latest outbreak in Cranswick shows that the issues in the sector have still not been addressed, despite the risks being highlighted since May.

Unite is currently trying to ascertain the extent of the outbreak in Cranswick. We are also seeking assurances that members who have been sent home to self-isolate following shut-down of the plant will not suffer any loss of pay, and that they will return to a safe workplace when the facility re-opens.

“The highly-profitable meat processing sector relies on precarious, low-paid workers who may be reluctant to report symptoms or self-isolate because they fear a loss of pay.

“One of the best ways for the sector to address the spread of Covid-19 in meat plants would be to assure all workers that they will suffer no financial loss if they report symptoms or self-isolate. Workers must also be confident that they can report breaches of health and safety without suffering any detriment.

“This pandemic demonstrated that decent treatment of workers is not only socially and economically necessary, it is also a public health necessity."

A spokeswoman for Cranswick said the increase in cases had 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," she said.

“Working with the 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.

“The health and safety of all of our colleagues has always been our number one priority and we have done everything we can to protect our Ballymena team.

"From the outset of the pandemic, we have implemented additional measures to protect our team, including social-distancing measures, recommended PPE for all employees in line with the official guidelines and we have introduced additional cleaning and hygiene measures across the site."

Changes to current Covid-19 measures

Outdoor gatherings will now be limited to just 15 people. Previously, up to 30 people had been able to meet outdoors.

The number who can gather indoors has now been reduced from 10 to six. Those six people must come from no more than two households.

Minister Swann added that no further measures will be relaxed until the situation is under control.