A meat processing plant in County Antrim is to close following the discovery of a cluster of Covid-19 cases amongst workers.
Cranswick, in Cullybackey, which processes pigs, will shut for a deep clean and for the testing of staff.
The company briefed its workers on Thursday afternoon, with the closure taking effect from 18:00 BST on Saturday.
A cluster is defined as two or more cases.
A company spokesman declined to confirm how many of its 500 staff were involved in the current outbreak, but said staff welfare was the primary concern.
“There has been a recent increase in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Ballymena and the wider region and this has 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.
“Working with the Public Health Authority (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.”
Testing and tracing
The Public Health Agency said it had made a “number of significant recommendations” to a business in the Mid and East Antrim Council area.
“These include the testing of all staff this week and self-isolation of staff identified as close contacts of cases.”
It said testing and tracing was being carried out to identify staff who might potentially be affected to help prevent further community transmission.
It said it would not comment on individual cases to prevent people with the disease being identified or to deter others from coming forward.
There has been a recent spike in community cases in the Mid and East Antrim Council area with 80 new positive cases in the past seven days.
Cranswick will be the first meat company to close in Northern Ireland during the Covid pandemic, but not the first to have cases amongst its workforce.
A number have shut in the Republic of Ireland and across Europe in recent months following Covid clusters.
Conditions in meat plants are believed to lend themselves to disease transmission.
Cool temperatures and people working in close proximity on noisy production lines can facilitate it.
The fact that some meat plant staff tend to live or travel together can also be a factor.
But processors have spent considerable sums putting measures in place to try and mitigate the risk.
These include personal protection equipment for workers, screens to separate work stations on production lines and staggered shift times.
There were some protests at Northern Ireland meat plants at the start of the pandemic as workers complained about some companies’ response to their safety concerns.
It prompted fresh guidance for food processing companies.
The Health and Safety Executive said it had carried out 41 inspections of meat plants in Northern Ireland between 28 April and 17 August.
Cranswick would process in excess of 10,000 pigs a week at its Ballymena plant.
It’s understood discussions are under way with other firms to take those animals which the situation is resolved.