Northants Director of Public Health's comments about Greencore staff are 'unacceptable' says campaign group

Lucy Wightman has said her comments about Greencore staff are not about apportioning blame but helping workers understand where the transmission risks lie

Tuesday, 18th August 2020, 5:27 pm
Lucy Wightman says it has become clear some staff are leaving covid safety practices in the workplace.
Lucy Wightman says it has become clear some staff are leaving covid safety practices in the workplace.

A public services campaign group has branded comments made by the county’s director of public health about the actions of Greencore staff as unacceptable.

Save Our Services Northants has said Lucy Wightman’s comments about the exemplary behaviour of the Greencore company in the wake of a mass Covid-19 outbreak among its staff ‘shifts the blame onto the workers’ shoulders and lets employers and the Government off the hook.’

Just under 300 staff at the sandwich factory in Northampton have contracted Covid-19 after a mass testing exercise by the company, sparked by a few positive cases in recent weeks.

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The director of public health has said the social activities of staff outside of work, their car sharing activities and living conditions have been factors in the outbreak, and has said the actions of the company, which supplies M&S, have been ‘exemplary’.

The statement from Save Our Services Northants says: “The response of the local Director of Public Health and other local authorities to the Covid crisis at the Greencore company has been inadequate, a cover up and an attempt to shift the blame for the crisis onto employees and workers.

“The response of the local Director of Public Health, Lucy Wightman, to praise the ‘wonderful’ company response and to blame workers because they car share to work or live with others is not acceptable. This attitude shifts the blame for this crisis onto the workers’ shoulders and lets employers and Government (both national and local) off the hook for their abysmal response to this crisis.

“Unlike the many poorly paid workers in Northampton’s low waged economy it may come as news to the Director of Public health that a large number of workers cannot afford their own cars or houses and would most probably face disciplinary measures, for endangering food output, if they were late to work or miss shifts because of transport difficulties.

“Many Greencore workers operate in cold temperatures and work on lines of food, close together. For the Director of Public Health to say the company has been meticulous and exceeded the Covid safety requirements begs the question of how can that be with such a major outbreak. Either the requirements are not sufficiently tough or aren’t being implemented properly – which is a company responsibility.

“Any proper public health response would have set up testing at the factory gates for all workers and advised the company to cease food production and that workers be sent home on full pay until their results are known.

“Also the public should be told where the 20 reported outbreaks in Northants are – at care homes, hospitals and workplaces, so that people are informed and can take appropriate avoidance measures.

“Only decisive measures, not blaming employees and workers, will protect the local community.”

Greencore carried out its own private tests of staff, however a new walk-in testing unit has now been established in Moulton.

The leader of the borough council has described the situation as a ‘disaster’ and the outbreak is one of the biggest in the country.

Covid cases are contrining to rise in Northants with hotspots in the county town, plus currently in Wellingborough and Corby.

In response to Save Northants Services comments Lucy Wightman said it was not about blaming staff.

She said in a statement given to the Local Democracy Reporting Service today: “Since the Greencore outbreak involved a significant number of cases and it was clear that there was an element of community transmission, a decision was made to include outbreak data in the weekly surveillance report.

“Through investigations by local Environmental Health Officers, Public Health England and NCC Public Health 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. ​​As part of our processes to aid our understanding about how COVID-19 is being transmitted in the county, we undertake outbreak control meetings with employers, Trade Unions, various Public Health experts and communications partners.

“Insights provided by Trade Unions and employers has helped us identify activities and circumstances outside of the workplace that may be contributing to onward transmission of COVID-19, such as car sharing, congregation at smoking shelters and shared accommodation.

“This is very much about working together to understand sources of transmission, and we continue to gather intelligence from a number of sources, including from cases themselves, to understand their concerns.

“This is absolutely not about apportioning blame but about helping workers and other members of the public to understand where transmission risks lie and what measures we can all take to reduce this risk – for example, we have advised those who are car sharing to wear face masks, travel with the windows open and clean their car after travel.”

In May the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union put in a formal grievance complaint to Greencore after it failed to tell production staff a member of management had tested positive for the virus.