Northampton faces the threat of a local lockdown after nearly 300 workers at a sandwich factory that supplies M&S have tested positive for coronavirus.
The Greencore food facility on the town’s Moulton Park Industrial Estate has revealed 292 staff there have caught Covid-19 and are self-isolating.
Local health authorities said 79 people tested positive on the NHS, and a further 213 were spotted through Greencore’s private swabbing scheme.
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.
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.
It comes as a symptom-tracking app today named six new coronavirus hotspots in England, including St Helens, Blackpool and Thurrock in Essex.
Greencore in Northampton said nearly 300 staff there have tested positive for Covid-19 and are self-isolating
In a statement, 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.’
Northampton is listed as a ‘concern’ by PHE, which last week published a list of 29 areas that have worrying levels of coronavirus.
THE 29 TOWNS AND CITIES OF CONCERN ON PUBLIC HEALTH ENGLAND’S WATCH LIST:
- Blackburn with Darwen
- Wigston and Eden
*As of 7 August, based on data between 27 July and 2 August
The worst affected areas — 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.
As a result of Northampton’s status, Greencore said it was testing staff itself rather than waiting for them to get NHS tests.
The company said: ‘In each case we have immediately conducted contact tracing and instructed potentially affected colleagues to self-isolate.
‘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 wellbeing of our colleagues is our number one priority.’
Lucy Wightman, director of public health at Northamptonshire County Council, said employees have been asked to ‘act now’ after the number of confirmed cases in the town increased from 66 in the week ending August 2 to 85 for the week ending August 9.
She said: ‘We are working with colleagues at Greencore in Northampton after the discovery of an outbreak of Covid-19 in the workplace.
‘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.
‘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.’
Food factories and slaughterhouses have hit headlines for hosting Covid-19 outbreaks in countries around the world.
Scientists say cramped and poorly-ventilated working conditions in the factories — the centre of fresh outbreaks in the UK and Germany — could be to blame because they make social distancing difficult.
But experts also suggest the cold and sunless refrigerated buildings could allow the virus to spread and infect people faster than it would outside.
ARE MEAT AND FOOD FACTORIES HOTSPOTS FOR THE CORONAVIRUS?
As news has emerged of food factories around the world experiencing outbreaks of Covid-19, experts have suggested conditions inside the plants may be conducive to the spread of the virus.
Dr Simon Clarke, a cellular microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that it was notable that food factories seemed to have been the centre of outbreaks more than other factories where people might be close together.
He said: ‘There are problems in this country, in Germany, in the United States. There is something common between them – it’s not happening in engineering or clothing factories where you also might expect people to be in close proximity to one another.
‘One assumes – but it’s just an idea – that the cold environment makes people more susceptible to the virus.
‘Cold weather irritates the airways and the cells become more susceptible to viral infection.’
Dr Chris Smith, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, said on LBC ‘temperature is going to play a part’.
He explained: ‘When I’m breathing I’m blowing out droplets of moisture from my respiratory tract and the virus which is growing in there would be packaged up in the droplets.
‘Now the droplets will hover for a period of time in the air and then sink to the ground… and if it’s very dry, cold air – and cold air carries less moisture, remember – the droplets will stay smaller and stay airborne for longer.
‘If it’s very humid, moisture joins them, makes them bigger and heavier, and they fall and they drop out of circulation faster – so temperature could be a factor.’
Sunlight is also known to degrade viruses and make them less able to survive on surfaces that are exposed to UV light.
Rays of sunlight are thought to damage the genetic material inside the virus, making it less able to reproduce and killing it faster.
Professor Calum Semple, a disease outbreak expert at the University of Liverpool, told The Telegraph that cold, sunless food factories are ideal conditions.
He said: ‘If I wanted to preserve a virus I would put it in a cold, dark environment or a cool environment that doesn’t have any ultraviolet light – essentially a fridge or a meat processing facility…
‘The perfect place to keep a virus alive for a long time is a cold place without sunlight.’
But the temperature alone does not appear to be a controlling factor in coronavirus outbreaks.
Dr Michael Head, a global health researcher at the University of Southampton, said he thought close proximity was most likely to be behind the factory outbreaks.
He said: ‘Whilst refrigeration may be a contributory factor to the spread of the virus, the key factors are likely to be the number of people close together in indoor conditions.
‘Some of these factories have onsite or nearby accommodation where there are several people in each dormitory, they may be transported on a bus to the site of work, and they will be indoors together all day.
‘Levels of adherence to measures such as washing hands is uncertain and there is unlikely to be widespread use of PPE.’