I thank the committee for inviting Meat Industry Ireland here this afternoon.
Meat Industry Ireland is the IBEC trade association that represents the meat sector in Ireland that accounted for almost €4 billion of food exports in 2019 into the UK, the EU and world markets. The meat sector contributes to the incomes of 100,000 farmers, employs some 16,000 people directly and comprises approximately 50 major processing sites all over Ireland.
While there have been challenging days for our sector in the course of this Covid-19 pandemic, the position on Covid-19 cases in the meat processing sector has significantly improved. Today, there are no active cases in our meat plants and our absolute focus is to maintain this position. Very substantial Covid measures have been put in place. We can confirm that over 97% of affected staff have now returned to work, and the remainder are completing their isolation and recovery. The stringent control and mitigation measures in place will be maintained in the weeks and months ahead, with no room for complacency. Vigilance is the priority as general restrictions are lifted across the economy.
Meat processing is a labour-intensive business, with limited automation available due to the complexity and product craftsmanship of meat processing. The sector is one of the few sectors that remained open for business throughout the lockdown.
The first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported in Ireland on 29 February and first stage restrictions were announced by Government on 12 March. By then - weeks before we entered full lockdown - Meat Industry Ireland members had already introduced a series of mitigation measures which have since been updated to reflect evolving practice. It was not until 15 May 2020 that the HSE published its interim guidance on Covid-19 document specifically for the meat sector, some two months after MII members first implemented detailed mitigation measures across all meat establishments.
Where early cases of Covid-19 were detected, businesses quickly responded by following the appropriate self-isolation advice for all employees who showed symptoms or who tested positive. MII members also traced close contacts and they were also asked to self-isolate. The precautionary principle was followed, taking no risks with identifying positive cases and close contacts and excluding them from the workplace. A range of measures were identified and put in place with a singular and clear objective: to keep people safe.
The State moved to a full lockdown on 27 March, at which time the Government designated the meat sector among a range of essential services that would continue to operate during the lockdown. The first Covid-19 case was reported in a meat processing plant on 17 March. Further cases followed. As clusters began to form in certain sites the HSE provided collaborative oversight and assistance at local level. In all cases where clusters materialised, plant management engaged closely with the HSE and strictly followed the advice and direction of the HSE. Contact tracing was recorded and transmitted to public health authorities in respect of all sites. This has been publicly acknowledged by the HSE.
It became clear that many of the cases that emerged were identified among people who had shown no symptoms of the virus and who continued to work. Many of these asymptomatic cases were detected as part of wider screening tests conducted at sites under the direction of the HSE. This led to the emergence of a small number of clusters with significant positive cases and ultimately to the establishment of a national outbreak control team.
From the outset a comprehensive set of mitigation and prevention measures was implemented at site level. Covid-19 response teams were established. Risk assessments were conducted by senior plant management. Staff and union representatives were regularly briefed. Training was provided. Covid-19 signage and notices in all relevant languages were installed, as were additional and enhanced hygiene, sanitation and biosecurity protocols. Breaks and lunches were staggered to comply with physical distancing, including the creation of additional canteen and amenity capacity. Maintaining a 2 m gap between people posed particular physical challenges for parts of the meat processing production chain, especially in the deboning of the meat, which is a labour-intensive activity. To address this, Perspex dividers to separate side-by-side contact between employees were introduced and visors were used for employees facing each other on the production line, as recommended by current HSE policy guidelines. Other steps taken included: changes to rosters and shifts; a reduction in line speeds; the introduction of masks, face visors or goggles to complement personal protective equipment; and changes to workstation layouts.
A key message to all staff was that they should not enter the workplace if they experienced any of the known symptoms of Covid-19. As part of this, employees entering sites were required to complete questionnaires about Covid-19 symptoms and undergo temperature screening before entering sites. In addition, enhanced protocols were introduced in respect of all inbound and outbound animal supplies and product dispatch. These composite measures, numbering 60 or more, were implemented across plants some two months ahead of the interim guidance on Covid-19 provided by the HSE on 15 May. This guidance reinforced the robustness of the measures already put in place in meat plants. Where additional measures were recommended by the HSE guidelines they have been fully complied with.
Verification of this has been overseen by both the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine veterinary staff, who have a permanent presence in meat plants, and a series of inspections conducted by the Health and Safety Authority.
The challenges faced by the sector relating to Covid-19 have led to concerns being raised about the working and living conditions of meat processing personnel. It is unknown why, in meat processing facilities in countries such as the US, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere, the infection rates are high in some facilities while lower in other facilities, even in multiple-site companies that have common protocols across all sites.