Downgrading of two-metre social distancing rule risks ‘more outbreaks’ for meat industry

An expected downgrading to the two-metre social distancing rule risks causing ‘more outbreaks’ of coronavirus within the meat processing sector, Unite, the UK and Ireland’s largest union, said today (Monday 22 June).

Unite called for ‘significant intervention’ by both the government and employers to prevent Covid-19 spreading at meat processing factories to accompany any downgrading of the social distancing measures, including better health and safety regimes and improvements to testing and tracing.

The prevalence of coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories also makes it incumbent on ministers and employers to ensure that workers, who need to self-isolate, can be either paid under the job retention scheme (JRS) or have their rates of company sick pay increased, Unite said.

The union said it was ‘inevitable’ that some low paid meat factory workers on ‘exploitative contracts’, who should be self-isolating, will continue working because they are only entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) of £95.85 a week.

Unite national officer Bev Clarkson said: “Many employers are barely taking notice of the two-metre social distancing rule as it is. 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. 

“Just as important is the fact that far too many meat processing workers simply cannot afford to be ill and are being forced to disregard the rules to put food on the table. We are now in a situation where the poverty pay and exploitative contracts endemic to the sector are having a direct impact on public health. 

“Ministers and employers must step up to the plate and either provide sick pay that people can survive on or allow these workers to be furloughed.”

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